For the fifth straight week, COVID-19 conditions improved across the state.
The week ending Feb. 14 saw a 35% decrease in total COVID-19 cases across the state from the week prior, according to Dr. Joe Gerald, a University of Arizona professor who creates weekly coronavirus epidemiology reports based on Arizona Department of Health Services data.
In Pima County, cases declined 31% from the week before, Gerald said in the report.
The past four weeks have seen 5,308 COVID-19 cases the week beginning Jan. 17, 3,782 cases the week of Jan. 24, 2,473 cases the week of Jan. 31 and 1,586 cases from Feb. 7 to Feb. 13, according to the most-recent Pima County data.
Hospitalizations have also decreased in these four weeks, with 283 reported the week of Jan. 17, 242 the week of Jan. 24, 140 the week of Jan. 31 and 99 the week of Feb. 7.
In the same four-week timeframe, the county reported 173, 101, 64 and 23 coronavirus deaths respectively.
Gerald’s report says the week ending Jan. 17 remains Arizona’s deadliest at 1,011 coronavirus deaths across the state.
COVID-19 cases continue to remain above the threshold of 100 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents, which signifies elevated risk. Gerald said the week of Feb. 14 saw 158 new cases per 100,000 of the population.
As of Monday, Arizona holds the 17th highest rate for transmission in the country, according to CDC data. Gerald says the state is the sixth hardest hit in terms of identified cases.
Arizona saw a 28% decrease in general ward hospital bed usage among COVID-19 patients during the week of Feb. 19, while the number of coronavirus patients occupying ICU beds dropped 26% from the previous week, according to Gerald’s data.
Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief clinical officer of Banner Health, said Wednesday last week that hospitalizations and ventilator usage remain low, but ICUs are still seeing occupancies 10% higher than the peak of a normal winter season and are operating at 150% of their licensed bed capacity.
She expects the decline from the winter surge in cases to take much longer than that of the summer surge.
“It still is important to realize that we are in the midst of pandemic and while the decrease in all of those statistics of percent positivity, cases, hospitalizations, ICU, and ventilator usage are absolutely great and welcome, we still are in the midst of a pandemic,” Bessel said. “It is important for us to stay true to science and follow appropriate mitigation, enforcement and personal accountability.”
To gauge when more in-person activities can resume, Bessel said experts are watching factors like the percent positivity of COVID-19 among the population and the r-naught rate, which shows the average number of people who will contract the virus from an infected person.
“We've also been asked when things can return to normal. When can you hang out with your friends again, when can you stop wearing masks? While there is no definitive timeline, here are some of the things that public health experts are watching to make that determination,” she said. “We need to see community positivity rates below 5% and the r-naught, or the reproductive rate, below one. In addition, high vaccination rates are necessary. When all these things occur and when we have roughly 70% to 85% herd immunity, it is likely that you'll see recommendations from public health experts regarding ceasing of current restrictions.”
Arizona’s total percent positivity is at 14.2% according to ADHS data, and its r-naught is at 0.97, according to Statistica.
Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen thinks the decrease in cases is due to a variety of factors.
“What we're seeing is a consistent and continual downward slope in terms of our number of cases,” Cullen said. “We believe that this is reflecting many things in the population, compliance with the three W's [wear a mask, wash your hands, and wait (regarding physical distancing)] that we always talk about, our increasing immunization status—which means we have more and more people in the community getting at least one vaccination—and perhaps some other changes in the environment. It's getting a little warmer, maybe people are outside a little more.”
About 5.5% of Arizonans have received the two doses of COVID-19 vaccines needed to be completely immunized, according to ADHS data.
As vaccine rollout sluggishly progresses and coronavirus conditions appear to improve, public health experts stress mitigation practices are still necessary to avoid another spike in COVID-19.
“Conditions continue to improve markedly. Nevertheless, absolute levels of transmission remain high. Hospitals are very busy and hundreds of Arizonans are dying each week,” Gerald said. “While conditions are improving, it is still vital that we 'hold the line’ on our public health mitigation efforts for just a bit longer. Doing more to slow transmission (and keep it low) will ensure at-risk Arizonans can be vaccinated.”