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Arizona COVID-19 cases surge 54% in one week

Arizona COVID-19 cases surge 54% in one week

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series
Coronavirus illustration

An increase in the number of tests may not be that beneficial if the test cannot be reported in a timely manner, said Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor at the UA.

Coronavirus illustration

Arizona recently saw its largest week-to-week increase in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began.

New, confirmed cases in Arizona totaled a record 7,121 from May 31 to June 6, according to the latest data published Friday by the Arizona Department of Health Services. That was an increase of 2,504, or about 54%, compared with the week of May 24-30.

In Pima County, new cases totaled 665 from May 31 to June 6, an increase of 165, or 33%, from the previous before.

“When we look forward to the next several weeks, I don’t see anything but continued increasing case counts,” said Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor with the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health.

The week of May 31 to June 6 was twice as bad as Pima County’s first peak in April, said Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer. “It will be twice as much in terms of the number of cases, and that is super-concerning, and that is super-scary.”

Statewide, the percentage of positive tests has also been increasing since late April, from 5% to 13%.

“More people who are seeking testing have the virus,” Dr. Cara Christ, the state health director, said Friday.

Increased testing has contributed to the increase in cases, she said.

“I think that it is telling us, though, that we do have spread within our communities,” she said.

Gerald said he is “absolutely convinced” that the virus is spreading at a faster pace than it was several weeks ago, adding that Gov. Doug Ducey downplayed the recent increases in coronavirus cases at a news conference on Thursday.

Cases outpace tests

At the news conference, Ducey stressed that increased testing is a major explanation for the rise in cases.

“We’ve got an increase in testing, resulting in an increase in cases,” he said.

But the state’s data show cases increasing at a faster rate than tests. Last week, diagnostic testing increased by about 18% while cases rose by 54%.

Of Arizona’s total case count, 98% to 99% of cases were identified through diagnostic tests, also known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests, Christ said.

PCR tests indicate if patients are currently infected. The state health department also publishes data on serology tests, which indicate if a patient has previously been infected. Only about 300 positive serology tests had met the definition of a “probable case” and contributed to the state’s 34,458 total cases, Christ said. This means only about 0.25% of serology tests have contributed to Arizona’s total case count. As of Friday, 122,070 serology tests had been conducted.

preparing for surge

In Pima County, hospitals are reporting more coronavirus cases.

“While we have seen a slight uptick over the past few days in COVID-19 patients, our overall trends remain relatively stable, both in regards to hospitalized patients and patients seeking care in our emergency rooms. We continue to have capacity in our ERs, our ICUs, and the hospital overall, as well as ventilator capacity,” said Veronica Apodaca, director of marketing for Northwest Medical Center, 6200 N. La Cholla Blvd., and Oro Valley Hospital, 1551 E. Tangerine Road.

“ICUs remain busy,” Banner Heath said Thursday.

In Tucson, Banner is balancing the load between its hospitals, it said.

“If these trends continue, Banner will soon need to exercise its surge plan to increase ICU capacity,” Banner Health said.

Tucson Medical Center, 5301 E. Grant Road, also continues to see an increase in hospitalizations for coronavirus patients in its ICUs and general care units, said Angela Pittenger, a spokeswoman for TMC.

“We are participating in the statewide ‘Surge Line’ and taking admissions as they are requested by the state, as long as we have capacity,” she said. “The surge line was put into place to ensure that hospitals did not receive a disproportionate share or become overwhelmed with COVID patients.”

Carondelet hospitals have taken steps to prepare for additional patients should a surge occur. It has capacity for both coronavirus patients and noncoronavirus patients, said Angela Martinez, communications specialist with Carondelet Health Network, which includes St. Joseph’s Hospital, 350 N. Wilmot Road, and St. Mary’s Hospital, 1601 W. St. Mary’s Road.

Worrisome trends

Trends in hospitalization data are also showing changes.

In Pima County, the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients was trending down from the second week in April to the third week in May, but it has recently flattened out, according to a report published this week by the county's health department.

“So the fact that it’s flattening now makes me very nervous, makes me anxious,” said Garcia of the county Health Department.

Statewide, new hospitalizations by week haven’t exceeded highs set in late April and early May, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. The data is likely still coming in because of reporting lags.

The number of inpatient coronavirus patients, however, shows a clear upward trend, having set new highs in June, which suggests that coronavirus patients are admitted for longer periods of time.

“Bottom line is people are being admitted to the hospital more rapidly than they’re being discharged,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former state health director. “So that’s leading to the increased use of inpatient beds.”

On Thursday, Ducey stressed that hospitals in Arizona have adequate capacity to treat more coronavirus patients.

“What’s most important is where we are today in hospital capacity,” Ducey said. “That was the reason for this Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected order: to slow that spread so that we could treat all patients in Arizona without crisis care.”

Ducey implemented the stay-home order on March 31 and let it expire on May 16.

He said Thursday that implementing a new round of such restrictions is not currently under discussion.

While some hospitals are reaching capacity, Humble said he agrees with Ducey that there’s adequate statewide capacity right now.

“My concern is that without the policy changes ... we’re at risk of bumping up against that capacity in early July,” he said.

Humble is right, Garcia said: “The question is how close are we to the precipice in the state and Pima County.”

While it’s hard to know, he said, “We are certainly closer than a week ago.”

Peak could be coming

Christ is aware of predicted peaks in July or August, but she said she can’t make any determinations in regard to Humble’s prediction.

“We are always planning for the worst-case scenario and hoping for the best,” she said.

Future peaks can be mitigated, she said.

“We’re always talking about different mitigation things that we can put into place,” she said.

The state health department is focusing on public education, which includes teaching people about contact tracing, along with how to avoid getting sick by wearing a mask or avoiding large gatherings.

“We are actively working on contact tracing,” she said, adding that it’s important to teach the public what it is and how to break the chain of transmission.

At this point, Gerald said, contact tracing is not going to mitigate the spread of coronavirus at all.

“We still don’t have rapid enough turnaround on the tests that we are doing to allow effective contact tracing,” he said.

The virus is spreading so quickly that we also don’t have the public-health resources to keep up, he said.

“I would expect continued increases for the foreseeable future until we decide to do something different,” he said.

Contact reporter Alex Devoid at adevoid@tucson.com or 573-4417.

On Twitter: @DevoidAlex

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Data/Investigative Reporter

Alex has been with the Star since June 2019. He previously wrote about the environment for the Arizona Republic and he's a graduate of the University of Arizona.

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