Pima County to battle winter COVID surge with testing, vaccinations
Cullen 'concerned about our crisis in the hospitals'
An expected winter surge in COVID-19 cases, including the Omicron variant, has Pima County officials planning to bolster testing and vaccination efforts to stem the spread of the virus. The rate of new COVID cases in the county “remains elevated,” and the daily number of new reported infections across the state is larger than the late-summer surge as kids returned to in-person classes.
The county “continues to do well, but we still have a way to go” with getting more people vaccinated, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department. There has been a “tremendous increase” in the number of shots and boosters being administered because they’re now offered for free at the Tucson Convention Center, she told reporters Wednesday.
The county is also seeing more vaccinations provided at the Abrams Public Health Center and its other clinics.
Testing is also expected to expand here over the next three months with $3 million from American Rescue Plan funds going towards increasing hours at clinics.
Pima's vaccination rate has been increasing slowly. Slightly more than 62 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated, which is a one-percent increase from last week. About 100 percent of residents older than 65 have gotten at least one dose while 91 percent of the age group has both. The over-12 age group is 71 percent fully vaccinated, and the over-18 group is 73 percent vaccinated.
Kids ages 5-11, who have only been eligible to get shots since late October, are about 26 percent vaccinated in the county, Cullen said, which is up from 19 percent last week. There are about 88,000 local kids in that age group.
Arizona reported 3,506 new COVID cases and 18 deaths from the virus on Wednesday. Over the past four weeks, the state has reported daily case totals of more than 5,000 on multiple dates. Pima County reported 436 new cases and two more deaths on Wednesday.
School case loads in the county look to be lower this week with 172 cases reported for Monday and Tuesday, Cullen said. On the week of Nov. 22, there were 518 cases in area schools. On the week of Nov. 29, there were 744 cases in schools. The number for this week could be showing some “leveling off” in school cases, Cullen said, but it won’t be possible to say until the end of the week.
Like every county in the state since August, Pima County is still an area of “high” community transmission, which means it has more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That rate for the county is 352 new cases per 100,000 people.
The positivity rate in the county is 15 percent according to the CDC, which reflects infections among people testing for COVID. The county positivity rate has been climbing from 13 percent in early November.
The Health Department “remain(s) concerned about our crisis in the hospitals,” Cullen said.
On Tuesday the county had the most ICU beds in use by COVID-positive patients since Feb. 7 though they reported eight ICU beds, or 2 percent, available overall, which is relatively normal as there were days last winter with only a single ICU bed available.
Still, the high number of occupied ICU beds “makes us have some ongoing concerns,” Cullen said, but she expressed confidence in the county's ability to avoid running out of ICU beds completely.
"The hospital system is in a situation where it is overburdened," she said. "However, the county system, once again, seems able to respond. We have not had situations where there has been no bed availability...the lowest we've seen lately is eight ICU beds available."
Omicron, Pfizer boosters & breakthroughs
The county is “engaged in active surveillance” of the Omicron variant, made “a virus of concern” by the World Health Organization almost two weeks ago, Cullen said. County epidemiologists are working with the state and the Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in Flagstaff to sequence for the virus. Regarding the potential for the virus to arrive locally, Cullen said “it’s not a question of if but when.”
A case of Omicron has been confirmed in Central Arizona, state officials indicated Wednesday.
Speaking Tuesday, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, told the county board that “I have no reason to believe it won’t get to (Pima County)...if it’s not already here.” Cullen echoed that Wednesday, saying “we have porous borders” and that there’s nothing to keep the virus out.
On Wednesday, Pfizer said that their booster is effective against the Omicron variant, leading President Joe Biden to tweet that morning, “The new data from Pfizer on vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is encouraging.”
“This reinforces what my medical advisors have been emphasizing: that boosters give you the highest protection yet,” the president wrote.
Cullen welcomed the news and hoped that it would convince people to go out and get their boosters.
“I think that this finding from Pfizer should be reassuring and reaffirm to people how important it is for them to get a booster and if they’re not vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible, especially with the holidays coming up,” she said.
In October, the county reported that 26 percent of their COVID cases were in people who were fully immunized, making them “breakthrough” cases. In November, 28 percent of county cases were in people who were fully immunized. Cullen said that number “seems to be holding” but could either go up or down as hospitals report more numbers.
At their Tuesday meeting, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved the use of $3 million to support ongoing testing with money still remaining from the American Rescue Plan, a federal COVID relief bill from March.
Federal funds held by the Arizona Department of Health Services are expected to run out by the end of this month, but the county officials want to continue supporting free and accessible rapid antigen testing, according to a memo to the board by Jan Lesher, the acting county administrator.
The county has projected that the ARPA funding should cover testing expenses through “at least February and perhaps into early March, depending on the volume we see,” Cullen said.
The county has switched most of their testing from the slower PCR testing to rapid antigen testing because it’s quicker results are “especially useful in high-transmission settings like Pima County,” according to Lesher’s memo.
With the ARPA funding, however, the county will put $50,000 a month towards continuing to provide high-quality PCR testing, according to the memo.
Testing is currently “abundantly” available at 88 fixed sites in the county, according to the memo, including at pharmacies, grocery stores, urgent cares, medical offices and clinics. The county also tests at testing centers, schools, long-term care facilities and low-income housing settings.
Pima County spends as much as $344,500 on their site on East Grant Road, $182,800 per month to test at Liberty Plaza and $111,000 per month to test at the Downtown Tucson Electric Power building, which currently has limited availability for testing. The county operates these sites in partnership with Paradigm Laboratories.
The $3 million will be used to expand testing at these sites. The TEP site is expected to deliver 555 more tests per week by adding Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to their schedule, which will increase operating costs to the county by $83,000 per month.
Testing at Liberty Plaza is expected to increase by 244 tests per week by offering hours on Mondays, which will cost the county an additional $36,500 per month.
The Ellie Towne Center site, which tests seven days a week, stays open at no cost to the county because it’s funded directly by ADHS, but the county is asking Arizona State University, which operates the site, to consolidate hours to four to five days a week. The county wants to deliver an additional 1,200 tests per week at the location, which is in Flowing Wells, by paying $199,000 a month to bring in a second vendor who can handle the load.
Last week, the Ellie Towne Center site conducted more 900 tests. The East Grant Road site conducts about 329 tests per week while the Liberty Plaza and Tucson Electric Power building sites conduct 244 tests per day and 185 tests per day, respectively. The TEP site also reports conducting 150 tests on Sundays, according to the county memo.
Paradigm Labs also operates at the Tucson International Airport with state funding and performs over 2,000 tests a week. The testing site is expected to continue uninterrupted.
The county also does mobile testing and expects to increase testing at mobile sites by 300 tests per week over the next three months. Self-testing kits are also supported by the county, which delivered 64,158 test kits in November for supervised self-administration, mostly to support testing in schools.
The county has performed over 2 million tests since July 2020, a few months into the pandemic. Proof of residency isn’t required, which Cullen said helps get testing for tourists including snowbirds and possibly for tourists for upcoming college football bowl games.
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.