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COVID-19 becomes Arizona's leading cause of death

While COVID-19 patients across Arizona increasingly overwhelm hospitals, the state’s COVID-19 death count has reached an unfortunate milestone.

In the last year, since mid-December 2020, more than 14,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ data on COVID-19 deaths.

This is a “staggering number and something to remind us how serious this pandemic has been for our state,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.

“That makes COVID-19 the leading cause of death in our state, ahead of both heart disease and cancer,” LaBaer said, adding that it doesn’t include people who died from other causes that went untreated because the medical system was overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

On a shorter, more recent time frame, the state’s death count has also risen to a notable level. Its seven-day death rate was ranked second in the country behind Montana, as of Friday, with nearly 7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor with the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, also pointed out that nearly 400 people died from COVID-19 in the last week of November.

Vaccine rate low for young kids

This weekly tally is well below the state’s record weekly death count of over 1,000 deaths in the second week in January 2021, but Gerald pointed out that vaccines are much more widely distributed now than they were nearly a year ago.

“To have 400 deaths (in a week) a year after vaccines have been widely available, it’s incredibly disappointing and frustrating,” he said. “Most of those deaths would have been preventable with greater vaccine uptake.”

The risk of dying from COVID-19 in October was 15 times higher for unvaccinated people than fully vaccinated people, according to a biweekly ADHS report published Dec. 8 on breakthrough COVID-19 cases and deaths, which showed that the wide majority of COVID-19 deaths happen to unvaccinated people.

“Deaths are almost exclusively occurring in people who were not previously vaccinated,” Gerald said.

Statewide, 64% of the population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to ADHS.

Children 5 to 11 years old, however, have a particularly low vaccination rate in Arizona, with about 24% having received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, as of Dec. 15, according to ADHS.

In Pima County the vaccination rate for this age group is a bit higher with nearly 33% having received their first dose.

It’s been harder to vaccinate this age group than some health experts had anticipated.

“Not that many people came out to get the shot into their kids’ arms right away. I think it may be pandemic fatigue,” said Dr. Sean Elliott, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Tucson Medical Center.

“The challenge has been not the supply. I mean, there are multiple places for children to get that specific lower dose vaccine,” he said. “The challenge I believe is the uptake.”

He attributes the low vaccination rate among this young age group to both pandemic fatigue and vaccine hesitancy, which he said pediatricians can mostly resolve in conversations with parents, although some won’t change their mind.

He also attributes the low rate to the fact that children are generally less symptomatic and less severely ill with COVID-19.

“Yet some kids still do get sick,” he said. “And more importantly, kids are increasingly contagious to others.”

Both state and county health departments have held or participated in video conferences to answers parents’ questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

‘Hospitals could get crushed’

As hospitals near capacity, health experts warn things can get worse.

“We are in a surge without a doubt,” LaBaer said. “It’s increasingly difficult for the hospitals now to get nurses to cover all the beds.”

On Dec. 16 only 5% of Arizona adult ICU beds were available, according to ADHS data.

In Pima County, less than 2% of adult ICU beds were available on Dec. 16, with 354 of 360 beds taken, according to the county’s health department.

Meanwhile, flu cases are also on the rise, which Gerald said creates a triple threat for Arizona this winter combined with the delta and omicron COVID-19 variants.

“I’m kind of worried about where we could be in early 2022,” he said. “Our hospitals could get crushed.”

While the first omicron variant in Arizona was reported on Dec. 9 in Yavapai County, the first case of this variant in Pima County was reported on Dec. 16.

The person who tested positive for the omicron variant in Pima County was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early December, according to the county’s Health Department.

Early data suggest that the omicron variant spreads even faster than the delta variant. Scientists also say it likely escapes immunity better too.

“Almost certainly there’s less vaccine protection against omicron than there was against delta,” LaBaer said. “That said, it does look like a booster shot makes a big difference. So people who’ve had a booster shot from the vaccine are much better protected against omicron than just the initial two doses. This is a good reason to go out and get the booster shot.”

Delta cases are still dominate across Arizona and Pima County.

“I think people who are asking the question, ‘Vaccine or no vaccine?’ are probably asking the wrong question. Really, it’s a question of vaccines versus getting the virus almost certainly, unless you live a hermit’s life,” LaBaer said. “If you’ve not been vaccinated, you’re almost certainly going to get COVID-19 at some point with omicron spreading through our community.”

Contact reporter Alex Devoid at 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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