Week in COVID: Storms Delay Vaccines, Banner Well being Resumes Visitation


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It’s Tuesday, February 23rd. More than 810,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 15,650 have died from it. Here’s what happened in the past week:

There are an average of 1,500 cases of COVID-19 per day in Arizona. The average number of new cases per day continues to decline. Cases are now closer to where they were in early August when the state emerged from the summer flood, but not as low as they were in September when only a few hundred cases were reported per day.

For the first time since late November, people with COVID-19 occupy only a quarter of ICU beds nationwide. Overall, 16 percent of ICU beds are available as hospitals work through a backlog of non-COVID-19 patients and restore the recommended 20 percent “safety margin”. More than half of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit, 266 out of 447, are still ventilated. It is likely that the number will continue to decrease as patients recover or die.

Banner Health has resumed all inpatient operations and is now allowing one visit per day for patients as hospital capacity opens up. “These trends are exactly what we would like to see and we hope they will continue over the coming weeks,” said Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer, at a briefing last Wednesday. However, hospitals are not completely out of the woods. Banner’s intensive care is still 10 percent higher than most winters – the busiest season. Hospitals continue to operate overflow beds, some of which are 150 percent of their usual capacity due to the additional posts. More than 1,900 contract workers are helping manage the situation, but the hospital system is working to keep their numbers as low as possible, Bessel said.

The death toll remains high as Arizona feels the end of the winter flood. Authorities routinely increase the death toll to more than 100 people each day. Last Wednesday, Arizona passed the latest milestone, claiming a total of 15,000 deaths. The death toll is lagging behind the number of cases both due to delays in reporting and the lengthy hospital stays that can precede death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arizona ranks sixth in terms of the number of COVID-19 deaths reported in the past week compared to the population.

Governor Doug Ducey ordered flags to fly at half mast for five days in honor of those who lost to COVID-19. The order started today, Tuesday, and will continue for five days. It is in coordination with a federal proclamation issued Monday to recognize that 500,000 Americans have since died of COVID-19. Ducey’s announcement encountered some setbacks online as commentators said he could have done more to prevent deaths in Arizona by introducing mitigation measures that have long been advocated by public health experts.

A total of 1.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Arizona. More than 1.09 million people have received at least one dose, and nearly 414,000 have received both needed doses. This means that around 5 percent of the state’s population is protected. Experts say 70 to 90 percent of the state needs to be fully vaccinated in order to establish herd immunity. On Friday, Arizona Department of Health Executive Director Dr. Cara Christ, with that more than 90 percent of the state-allocated vaccines have been used.

Gila County is the first in the state to reach Phase 1C vaccination. This includes people at high risk for disease and people living in a community. Six other counties are currently offering vaccinations for everyone in Phase 1B, which includes key workers and high-risk adults in congregational settings. The counties previously had limited shots within the 1B designation. The most populous counties in the state continue to prioritize certain Phase 1B subsets, such as teachers and people 65 and over.

Historic winter weather in the rest of the country is hindering Arizona’s vaccination efforts. Bessel said vaccine doses, deliveries of syringes and other medical equipment have been delayed. State and county officials have made efforts to use the vaccines available to address the resulting shortages. Pima County had to cancel 3,000 appointments but is expected to make up for the missed doses when shipments arrive this week. Christ said they plan to postpone any missed appointments in the coming weeks.

Maricopa County will close its mass vaccination sites in the northeast and southeast in favor of localized locations across the community. The sites operated by health organizations in partnership with the county should only apply to Phase 1A vaccinations, but have continued to provide vaccines in the current 1B phase. The number of vaccine purchase locations in Maricopa County has skyrocketed in the past few weeks as pharmacies started getting doses of vaccine directly. Christ said that around 280 pharmacies in the state received 100 doses last week as part of a federal program, and more are on the way.

The state opened a mass vaccination state in Tucson, but not everyone is excited about it. The third state location is at the University of Arizona and is the first outside of Maricopa County. However, according to local authorities, the real problem is the number of vaccines that have been allocated to Pima County, which they have been complaining about for weeks. “We want to be in a situation where everyone is vaccinating as much as possible. We’re not there yet because of the supply-side issues and I don’t know that this will make our lives any easier,” said Dr. Francisco Garcia, the chief medical officer of the county health department, told a local TV station. On the U of A site, people can walk to get their appointments.

The state will take over one of the East Valley locations that the county is closing. The site is located at Chandler-Gilbert Community College and will open on March 3 following a brief shutdown of the Dignity Health transition operations to government personnel. Due to the limited supply, it only operates from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but can be expanded as more cans become available.

Arizonans on Medicaid can now pay for the transportation costs for the vaccination. Starting Monday, eligible people can call their health plan to arrange non-urgent medical transportation to take them to their appointments. It is estimated that 30 percent of Arizonans are covered by Medicaid.

If you’d like to try signing up for a vaccination, follow these steps. If you would like to register in Maricopa County, you can find a location near you here. To register for a location in the rest of the state, click here.

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Erasmus Baxter is a contributor to the Phoenix New Times.