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COVID-19 cases flatten, but Tucson area hospitals still busy

COVID-19 cases flatten, but Tucson area hospitals still busy

As COVID-19 cases flatten in Pima County, 75% of those 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

COVID-19 cases in Pima County continue to plateau, with a slight downward trend.

Most recently, cases from Sept. 5-11 dropped by about 6% to 1,722 from the week prior.

“I was hoping that we’d have a much steeper decline like we’ve had in some of our other peaks. This really seems to be settling and plateauing rather than declining just yet,” Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county’s chief medical officer, said Friday. “Sometimes it looks a little bit too scarcely flat for my liking.”

Cases have plateaued here for about six weeks, with the exception of Aug. 15-21, when cases jumped over 2,000. Since that peak, weekly cases have fallen by about 15%.

Across Arizona, weekly cases have fallen by 20%, from a peak of 22,830 during the week of Aug. 15-21, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pima County had shown a downward trend for two weeks before Aug. 29-Sept. 4 when they jumped to 124 from a total of 98 the week before, according a Pima County Health Department report published on Sept. 16.

Tucson area hospitals busy

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations also seem to have plateaued at more or less than 1,400 per week for three weeks since Aug. 15-21, according to AZDHS data.

The Star typically accounts for two-week data-reporting lag for hospitalizations and a one-week lag for new virus cases.

“Our hospitals in general are super duper busy,” Garcia said.

This isn’t necessarily due to COVID-19, although COVID-19 patients in the ICU do typically have longer stays that drain hospital resources, he said. It’s also due to a general labor shortage in hospitals throughout the county.

“Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations are trending in the right direction,” he said. “So I think that that’s a bit of good news. And overall, the percentage of ICU beds occupied by COVID patients has remained relatively steady at about 23%.”

As of Sept. 16, there were 20 ICU beds available countywide, according to data from the Pima County Health Department. This number was up from the week prior when there were only 10 ICU beds available on Sept. 10.

“Until we have more capacity in the system, I’m not going to sleep well,” Garcia said. “Yeah, 20 beds seems like a lot, but it really isn’t. If you think about a mass casualty situation it would be insufficient.”

As of Sept. 16, there were 158 ICU beds available statewide out of 1,746, according to AZDHS data. About 33% of the state’s ICU beds were taken by COVID-19 patients.

“By and large, the folks that we continue to see as requiring hospital care, 95% to 90% of these folks are unvaccinated,” Garcia said.

On Friday, a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee rejected approving a booster of Pfizer’s COVID-19 shot for everyone, but did recommend it for those 65 and older and anyone at high risk of severe COVID-19 six months after their second second shot.

Garcia wasn’t surprised that the FDA recommended a booster shot, or a “third dose,” as he called it, for this population.

“We estimated that number of folks here in Pima County and it was a relatively modest number and we certainly know that we’ve provided more third doses than that number would suggest so I know a lot of folks have gotten third doses, hopefully appropriately.”

Statewide, just about 57% of the total population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to AZDHS data. And about 50% of the population has been fully vaccinated.

In Pima County, 65% of the total population has had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while about 57% have been fully vaccinated.

“This is really really super remarkable,” he said. “This is really very much ahead of the curve in terms of the rest of the state, in terms of the rest of the nation.”

Garcia pointed out that about 75% of those eligible, people 12 and older, in Pima County have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. About 65% of those 12 and older have been fully vaccinated.

“My nightmare scenario is that we will have low but significant levels of infection that persist here beyond the next six months to year to two years,” Garcia said.

Garcia said he believes that it’s possible to fully vaccinate 80-85% of the eligible population in Pima County. “That will afford us a degree of protection that we otherwise don’t have.”

Contact reporter Alex Devoid at adevoid@tucson.com or 573-4417. On Twitter: @DevoidAlex

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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