PHOENIX — The state’s top health official says people in the next priority category, including educators, public safety workers and those 75 and older, should be able to get vaccinated at pharmacies in five Arizona counties — including Pima — starting in a little more than a week.
But Dr. Cara Christ also said Friday that she sees no reason to impose additional restrictions on Arizonans, as available hospital beds drop to 7%, the total number of state COVID-19 deaths is poised to hit 10,000, and the state tops the world in current rates of new coronavirus cases.
Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said there was a spike in coronavirus rates following the Christmas holiday, and that Arizona should look for another increase in the weeks following celebrations for New Year’s Eve.
22M vaccines distributed, but less than 7M administered
But she said she remains convinced that has to do with people spreading COVID-19 through small group gatherings and acting in unsafe manners like not wearing masks. She pointed out that the restrictions put in place last year, such as occupancy limits on indoor restaurant dining, remain in place.
Christ said she’s not convinced stronger measures would make a difference.
“California has some of the strictest mitigation strategies,” she said. “And they’ve even got less hospital capacity and higher numbers than Arizona.”
Instead, her department is focused on getting more people vaccinated against COVID-19.
As of Friday, Christ said there were 126,090 doses administered. Most were first doses, though about 2,000 included people who got the required second dose.
She also said that by the middle of this coming week the state’s two most populous counties, Maricopa and Pima, should be in the 1-B stage. That opens the door for inoculating educators, child-care workers, public safety workers, adults in nursing homes and other congregate-care facilities with high-risk medical conditions, and individuals who are 75 and older, regardless of medical condition.
Gila, Mohave and Pinal counties already are at that point.
Christ conceded that just 45% of individuals statewide in Phase 1-A have been vaccinated. These are the front-line health-care workers.
Despite that, the health chief said she is not alarmed.
She said some of the lag may be due to people having to schedule appointments. And, even as the state moves into the 1-B category and beyond, those front-line workers remain eligible, she said.
Christ acknowledged that even among health-care workers there may be some hesitation.
“We know that as more and more people get vaccinated and talk about their experience, people who may have not been comfortable getting vaccinated early on may opt to get vaccinated later,” she said.
Christ also announced the state will open a 24/7 inoculation site at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. She figures that could move about 6,000 people a day through the system.
However, it will be available solely to those who fit within the 1-B category and to those in the 1-A category who remain eligible. It requires an appointment that can be set up on the health department’s website or by calling the 2-1-1 referral line.
Other areas of the state “are all working on strategies,” Christ said.
Some of those strategies will be handled through county health departments.
Also, she said, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already is working directly with pharmacies where eligible residents will be able to get inoculated when each county goes into the 1-B phase.
Christ figures those pharmacies will be able to start offering vaccines beginning the week of Jan. 18. That, she said, will mean that “individuals can go get vaccinated, just like they do with the flu.”
Pima County is looking to create additional mass vaccination sites and extend the hours at some, she said.
The best bet, said Christ, is checking with azhealth.gov/findvaccine, where individuals can find out what stage their county is in, locations for vaccinations and links to preregister.
It will be late February or early March before Christ believes those in the 1-C category will be able to get in line. That includes anyone 65 and older, adults of any age with high-risk medical conditions, and adults living in congregate care settings.
“And it’s probably the spring before we’ll be moving into the general population,” she said.
In the meantime, most Arizonans will remain susceptible to contracting the virus. But Christ said she remains convinced that mandates like those imposed in some other states, like masks, curfews and business closures, will make no difference here.
“As you’re looking at what’s going on in the other states, there’s not a best practices model,” she said.
“You’ve got Florida who has no mitigation strategies that’s in the same boat,” Christ said. “You’ve got California who has stricter mitigation strategies that is in the same boat.”
Christ said the answer is getting people to follow the protocols in place, like not spending time with groups of people you don’t know.
“We’re still seeing small-gathering spread,” she said.
“We know that people got together, we know that they let their guard down on Christmas and Christmas Eve,” Christ said. “We saw the results after that,” with Arizona recording its highest peak in infections in the three to five days after the holiday.
“The spike from New Year’s will likely come this coming weekend,” she said.
Christ said the best way to curb the spread is for people to wear masks. Although Gov. Doug Ducey, her boss, has refused to issue a statewide mandate, she said that 91% of the state is covered by some sort of local mask ordinance.
“There’s not local enforcement going on,” Christ said, though she said her department is going out and checking establishments over which it has some power, like fitness centers.
While the health director has done weekly briefings, the governor, who actually decides any restrictions, has not faced the media since Dec. 16. Christ said that shouldn’t be a surprise, as her briefings are focused on technical aspects of the virus and the vaccines, even though she is the one put in the position of also answering policy questions.
“It’s probably not the best use of the governor’s time to be here with me,” she said, adding that she is in “daily communications” with Ducey’s team.
All this comes as the latest numbers show just 131 of the state’s 1,690 beds in intensive-care units are available, as a majority are occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Arizona has the highest rate of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past seven days, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The 197 new deaths from the virus reported Friday brought the statewide total to 9,938.