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As COVID cases rise again, Pima County and other local government agencies are struggling to lower transmission amid an increase in public events.

Dr. Joe Gerald, an epidemiologist with the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health who has been tracking COVID cases since the virus first arrived in Arizona, noted that for the week ending Oct. 31, Arizona had 260 new cases per 100,000 residents, a 25% jump compared to just two weeks earlier, when cases were just 203 per 100K residents. 

Gerald noted the cases are rising across all age groups. 

“The cause is uncertain but the list of culprits includes fall break for many K-12 schools, a welcomed cold front that cooled things down for a week or so, waning vaccine and acquired immunity, sporting events, loss of individual mitigation behaviors,” Gerald wrote.

Overall case numbers may be even higher, as some people may be using take home kits and not reporting their results to county authorities. Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said in a Nov. 5 press conference that only about 10% to 15% of people are reporting their home-test results to Pima County.

By December, it will have been exactly one year since the COVID vaccines became available in Arizona. Health officials believe the vaccine’s efficacy might wane over time, especially against the widespread Delta variant, which is why Gerald advises people to get a booster shot if they have already been vaccinated.

Two weeks ago, Pima County made the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots available to eligible adults. The Centers for Disease Control approved the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster on Oct. 21 with a “mix and match” recommendation. People can choose to receive a different booster shot from their original vaccination.

Pima County continued to expand vaccine availability on Nov. 5 by offering the Pfizer pediatric COVID vaccine to kids ages 5 to 11. The Health Department established a proactive method of pediatric vaccine distribution before FDA and CDC approval so the vaccines will be widely available this week to providers. Pediatric Pfizer vaccines are a third of the normal dosage and are free through Pima County.

Pima County is also expected to make the vaccines available with their mobile vaccine clinics on Nov. 8 at elementary, middle, private, and charter schools throughout the county.

“We’re hitting those elementary and middle school areas heavily in order to try to increase as much access as possible for folks who maybe have reduced access to transportation, or who it might be harder for them to get to a pediatricians office to get a vaccination,” Pima County Health Department’s COVID-19 school liaison Brian Eller said in a Nov. 5 press conference.

This new rollout along with recommended mitigation strategies such as masking will help lower school outbreaks and classroom closures. These strategies are desperately needed to prevent schools from closing.

Agua Caliente Elementary School was forced to close due to a COVID outbreak last week and is expected to stay closed until Nov 15. Eller said there were 40 students with reported cases and more than 50% of the student body had been absent for two days prior to closure.

“There was a significant amount of time spent on discussions with the school in order to come to the right conclusion on what would be best and safest for that community,” Eller said.

Agua Caliente does not require students to wear masks. Schools without mask requirements are at higher risk for outbreaks, according to Pima County research.

A recently released study by the CDC, co-authored with Pima County, showed K-12 schools without mask requirements were 3.5 times more likely to experience a COVID outbreak. Data was taken from 999 public schools in Pima and Maricopa County.

Cullen said school outbreak cases are high and she’s hoping vaccination will decrease the number of cases.

Cullen urged those who remain unvaccinated to schedule an appointment for a shot. This is especially important as a new study shows Arizona is the only state in the U.S. where the leading cause of death during the pandemic was COVID-19.

Cullen said hospitals in Pima County are stable but not equipped to handle a major disaster.

“That stable nature is a system that could quickly get into a crisis,” Cullen said. 

“We have not had a situation where there’s been inadequate ICU or med surge or pediatric beds in the last few months. However, as we approach the winter, we remain very concerned about that possibility.”

Amid rising case numbers in Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Nov. 4 that he planned to challenge the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate geared towards private businesses. According to the administration’s requirements, all U.S. companies with at least 100 employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly starting Jan 4.

“We have and will continue to encourage all Arizonans to get the shot, which has been granted full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but it isn’t mandatory and shouldn’t be,” from Ducey’s statement.

But Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-District 3) praised the Biden administration for the new workplace requirements.

“This new workplace standard by the Biden administration is welcome news and will save lives,” Grijalva said in a prepared statement. “With COVID-19 as the new leading cause of death in Arizona, I applaud this effort to mitigate transmission of the virus in the workplace. Right now, people are uncomfortable risking themselves or their families to be in unsafe working conditions—and that must change. Having unvaccinated employees harms businesses as workers fall ill, spread the virus in the workplace, and businesses are forced to close and quarantine for extended periods of time. As we continue to see a rise in breakthrough cases and strained hospitals in Arizona, I encourage individuals to get vaccinated, to get their booster shots, wear masks and continue practicing safe public health protocols.”

Cullen said the Pima County Health Department doesn’t expect to assist with enforcement of the mandate, but the county is working with local businesses to ensure their employees will have access to the vaccine.

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