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'Another surge' of COVID infections for Pima County as holidays approach, officials warn

Hospitalizations increase again, as virus continues to spread due to lagging vaccination rate

Pima County is about to enter a fifth surge of COVID-19 infections, as vaccinations remain stagnant and holiday gatherings increase the risk of exposure, while immunity for some wanes against persistent virus variants. Everyone vaccinated more than six months ago should get booster shots, officials said in a public health warning.

An increasing number of COVID patients being hospitalized and a high infection rate here worries Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, she told reporters Wednesday.

“We are entering another surge,” Cullen said. “Stay home if you’re ill, mask in any public indoor setting, especially as we enter the holiday season.”

'Don't have a sense where we're going to stop'

Pima County is still an area of “high” community spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That means the county has more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. The county’s current infection rate is 347 new cases per 100,000 people.

Pima County reported 20 deaths from COVID on Wednesday and 491 new cases of the virus. Arizona recorded 83 deaths and 3,240 cases. In the past two weeks, Arizona and Pima County have seen some of the highest daily new case totals since the previous surge started in late July and early August, when K-12 academic years restarted.

Cullen said that she doesn’t expect the infection rate to drop back to a “moderate” level, which is a case rate between 10 and 50 new cases per 100,000 people, in the next six months or “near future.” She also doesn’t know what to expect in terms of the infection rate for the upcoming surge.

The CDC’s rating system for community spread is starting to lose any meaning, Cullen said, because the county infection rate is so far above the 100 cases per 100,000 people, the highest infection rate for which the federal agency has a designation.

“That moniker of 'high' transmission is not helpful right now,” she said. “If anything, we’re in ‘high, high’ transmission at the current time, and we don’t have a sense in the current wave where we’re going to stop. I think that’s what’s concerning all of us.”

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Public health advisory urges booster shots for all

The county issued a public health advisory on Monday urging everyone over the age of 18 who lives and works in Pima County to get a third dose booster shot “as soon as possible” if they’ve been vaccinated more than 6 months ago. The county is offering all three booster types at their vaccination sites and clinics, and many of these sites also offer vaccines for the 5-11 age group.

“We have made this decision with the understanding that we are seeing an acceleration in our community of COVID right now,” she said. “And we are activating all the tools we have available. Vaccination is one of the most significant tools.”

About 70 percent of Pima County residents over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated, but that doesn't indicate how many people have gotten their boosters. Of the total county population, 61 percent are fully vaccinated while about 70 percent have had one dose.

More people need to get their vaccinations here, despite the increasing number of breakthrough cases, County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“Vaccination is not sufficient to prevent infection, vaccination does not last forever. We shouldn’t be surprised. That’s not how the flu shot works either,” he said. “(But) if the goal of vaccination is to keep people from dying and to keep people from being hospitalized for severe disease, vaccination still is absolutely the best strategy we have to meet those two goals.”

The county is performing 4,000 tests a day, Cullen said, and is reporting that 8 percent of them are positive for the virus. The positivity rate reported by the CDC for Pima County is about 14 percent.

Because positivity and overall infections are increasing, Cullen said county officials realize a need to test more, and are pushing out more home testing. The county offers free take-home BinaxNOW antigen tests and sets up free testing centers.

Schools and hospitals

Pima County schools have reported 4,684 cases between the start of the current school year and Friday, said the county’s COVID-19 liaison with schools, Brian Eller, said that

As of Wednesday, there have been 176 outbreaks in schools, meaning two more or cases involving students who don’t come into contact outside of school, and 106 classroom closures, Eller said. On Friday, those numbers were 146 outbreaks and 94 classroom closures.

Eller recommended taking precautionary measures during the holidays to keep schools and children safe, including hosting holiday gatherings outdoors.

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There has been one child in Pima County who has died from COVID, but Cullen said county officials are not commenting on it right now.

Statewide, pediatric hospitalizations for COVID have increased in the past few days after being flat for over 8 weeks, Banner Health, the largest network of hospitals in Arizona, reported Monday.

Cullen also said she’s “very concerned about hospital capacity.” The ICU bed situation is “precarious at best,” she said. Over the past week, there has been a 2-3 percent availability for intensive care beds, she said. Med Surg bed availability is also a concern, she said.

The winter months normally see an increase in hospital bed usage, Cullen said, but she encouraged masking and vaccination to keep the occupancy levels low.

Of the 360 total ICU beds in all Pima County hospitals, only about 7-13 have been available for new patients on any given day for weeks.

Banner reported on Tuesday that they’ve “experienced a significant increase in our COVID admission over the past week,” in a press release.

“COVID and COVID-suspected patients now account for more than 25 percent of all Banner inpatients,” they reported. “Eighty percent of Banner’s hospitalized COVID patients in Arizona are unvaccinated.”

They also recorded the highest number of ICU beds in use in the past 8 months on Tuesday, with a significant increase coming in 24 hours between Monday and Tuesday. COVID patients now account for more than a third of all their ICU patients in Arizona hospitals.

ICU utilization by both COVID and non-COVID patients in Banner hospitals has remained “very high” over the past 14 weeks, they reported. Ventilator usage is also high, with COVID patients accounting for nearly half of the ventilators used by Banner hospitals in Arizona. COVID ventilator usage has been increasing since the beginning of November, they reported.

Emergency visits for COVID-like illness are still high and have not shown a downward trend statewide over the past 9 weeks, Banner reported.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. Theresa Cullen (in this file photo from May 2020) talked to reporters on Wednesday and said that Pima County is 'entering another surge' during a week where COVID hospitalizations have jumped, and holiday gatherings pose more risks ahead.

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