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Winter COVID-19 crisis nearly over in Arizona, but risk remains high
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Winter COVID-19 crisis nearly over in Arizona, but risk remains high

Phil Tartalone, an EMT with Premier Medical Group, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Oralia Miranda who was brought by her husband Jose to the mobile vaccination clinic setup at the South Tucson Public Housing Center located at 1713 S. 3rd Ave., in Feb. 20, 2021.

COVID-19 cases have fallen for six consecutive weeks both in Pima County and across the state, officials say. But they warn the virus is still spreading at a dangerous rate.

Nearly all signs show Arizona recovering from its worst surge of COVID-19 cases, which peaked in early January. While these improvements have given the state’s health system some breathing room, the virus is still spreading at a dangerous rate. “Arizona has transitioned from a period of crisis to one of elevated risk,” Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor with the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, wrote in a report he published recently.

Fewer patients have been hospitalized for COVID-19 week over week since the start of the year. And COVID-19 patients have taken up fewer beds statewide. Arizona’s weekly case count was 9,675 from Feb. 14-20, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of Friday.

This is an 85% drop since the first week of January, when cases reached a peak.

It’s also well below the height of the surge last spring. While this is good news, the improvements could soon slow down.

Cases have fallen for six consecutive weeks both in Pima County and across the state, but Gerald said his analysis showed a few counties with higher case counts in the third week of February than the week before.

He expects cases to continue to decline statewide through March, but come April he thinks they may start on a slow upward trend, leading to another wave in late May or early June, if one occurs.

He worries that the state’s improvements could start to reverse even sooner, but notes that Arizona State University’s COVID-19 modeling team still projects improvements for the next four weeks.

More contagious coronavirus variants could contribute to another wave of cases if they establish a bigger foothold in Arizona. “There’s a little bit of a race between getting people vaccinated and the emergence of these higher transmission variants,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute research center at Arizona State University.

Experts also worry that the public’s behavior could reverse improvements. Even though case counts are falling, now is not the time to stray from guidance designed to slow the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

But more and more people who are most at risk of falling severely ill or dying have been vaccinated.

Fewer people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, for example, have died from COVID-19 since the start of the vaccination program, Gerald said.

This makes him optimistic that a spring surge won’t be as deadly as previous statewide surges. While it would still cause hospitalizations and deaths, he said, the vaccine should take pressure off hospitals.

Arizona’s ranking for vaccination speed has improved among other states and territories over the past several weeks, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In terms of the number of people who have received both vaccine doses, as of Friday, the state ranked 42nd out of all states, territories and the District of Columbia — a group of 59 places.

The state ranked 50th toward the beginning of February. Statewide, 7% of the population has received both vaccine doses, while 16% have received at least one dose, according to the AZDHS data dashboard, as of Friday.

Across Pima County, nearly 8% of the population has received both doses, while nearly 17% have received at least one. Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen is hesitant to say the crisis has passed until the rate of positive COVID-19 tests falls below a certain threshold.

Cullen and her team want to see positive COVID-19 tests fall below 10% for two consecutive weeks.

It’s already fallen below this threshold for one week, and they expect it will remain there for a second week. They wait two weeks to look at tests to account for any delayed influxes of data.

If this type of influx does not happen, the week of Feb. 14-20 will remain below 10%. As of Friday, it was 7% in Pima County. Statewide, the percent positivity gave Gerald pause.

It ticked slightly upward during the week of Feb. 14-20.

“That just provides additional evidence that improvements we’ve seen are beginning to slow a little bit. Things are still getting better just not as quickly,” he said. “It was a little bit unexpected. I didn’t expect test positivity to go up.”

Along with the percent positivity, the health department primarily tracks the rate of cases in the population and the number of hospital visits for illnesses resembling COVID-19. This group of metrics helps them determine the current severity of the pandemic.

Pima County saw 1,093 cases from Feb. 14-20, which is about 106 cases per 100,000 people. The health department wants to see that number drop to below 100 cases per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks, but Cullen thinks it will be a while before the county falls below this threshold.

In context, however, the countywide case count isn’t nearly as bad has it has been in the past.

Cases have fallen by about 88% from the winter peak in the first week of January. They were down by about 56% from the countywide peak last spring. And they were slightly below the peak in September, which was an outbreak largely isolated to the University of Arizona.

If the data settles next week like she thinks it will, “we may say we are out of an emergent situation,” she said. “We are still in a high risk situation.”

Nearly all signs show Arizona recovering from its worst surge of COVID-19 cases, which peaked in early January.

While these improvements have given the state’s health system some breathing room, the virus is still spreading at a dangerous rate.

“Arizona has transitioned from a period of crisis to one of elevated risk,” Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor with the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health, wrote in a report he published recently.

Fewer patients have been hospitalized for COVID-19 week over week since the start of the year. And COVID-19 patients have taken up fewer beds statewide.

Arizona’s weekly case count was 9,675 from Feb. 14-20, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of Friday.

This is an 85% drop since the first week of January, when cases reached a peak. It’s also well below the height of the surge last spring.

While this is good news, the improvements could soon slow down. Cases have fallen for six consecutive weeks both in Pima County and across the state, but Gerald said his analysis showed a few counties with higher case counts in the third week of February than the week before.

He expects cases to continue to decline statewide through March, but come April he thinks they may start on a slow upward trend, leading to another wave in late May or early June, if one occurs.

He worries that the state’s improvements could start to reverse even sooner, but notes that Arizona State University’s COVID-19 modeling team still projects improvements for the next four weeks.

More contagious coronavirus variants could contribute to another wave of cases if they establish a bigger foothold in Arizona.

“There’s a little bit of a race between getting people vaccinated and the emergence of these higher transmission variants,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute research center at Arizona State University.

Experts also worry that the public’s behavior could reverse improvements. Even though case counts are falling, now is not the time to stray from guidance designed to slow the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

But more and more people who are most at risk of falling severely ill or dying have been vaccinated.

Fewer people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, for example, have died from COVID-19 since the start of the vaccination program, Gerald said.

This makes him optimistic that a spring surge won’t be as deadly as previous statewide surges. While it would still cause hospitalizations and deaths, he said, the vaccine should take pressure off hospitals.

Arizona’s ranking for vaccination speed has improved among other states and territories over the past several weeks, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In terms of the number of people who have received both vaccine doses, as of Friday, the state ranked 42nd out of all states, territories and the District of Columbia — a group of 59 places.

The state ranked 50th toward the beginning of February.

Statewide, 7% of the population has received both vaccine doses, while 16% have received at least one dose, according to the AZDHS data dashboard, as of Friday.

Across Pima County, nearly 8% of the population has received both doses, while nearly 17% have received at least one.

Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen is hesitant to say the crisis has passed until the rate of positive COVID-19 tests falls below a certain threshold.

Cullen and her team want to see positive COVID-19 tests fall below 10% for two consecutive weeks. It’s already fallen below this threshold for one week, and they expect it will remain there for a second week.

They wait two weeks to look at tests to account for any delayed influxes of data. If this type of influx does not happen, the week of Feb. 14-20 will remain below 10%. As of Friday, it was 7% in Pima County.

Statewide, the percent positivity gave Gerald pause. It ticked slightly upward during the week of Feb. 14-20.

“That just provides additional evidence that improvements we’ve seen are beginning to slow a little bit. Things are still getting better just not as quickly,” he said. “It was a little bit unexpected. I didn’t expect test positivity to go up.”

Along with the percent positivity, the health department primarily tracks the rate of cases in the population and the number of hospital visits for illnesses resembling COVID-19.

This group of metrics helps them determine the current severity of the pandemic.

Pima County saw 1,093 cases from Feb. 14-20, which is about 106 cases per 100,000 people.

The health department wants to see that number drop to below 100 cases per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks, but Cullen thinks it will be a while before the county falls below this threshold.

In context, however, the countywide case count isn’t nearly as bad has it has been in the past.

Cases have fallen by about 88% from the winter peak in the first week of January. They were down by about 56% from the countywide peak last spring. And they were slightly below the peak in September, which was an outbreak largely isolated to the University of Arizona.

If the data settles next week like she thinks it will, “we may say we are out of an emergent situation,” she said. “We are still in a high risk situation.”

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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