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Pima County is expanding COVID booster eligibility rules to allow anyone over 18 to get the booster.

As Pima County hospitals fill up because of an increase in COVID cases, county officials are expanding eligibility ahead of the CDC’s recommendation.

Banner Health officials announced earlier this week that they have seen a significant increase in COVID ICU admissions and that COVID patients now account for more than a third of all ICU patients in Banner’s Arizona hospitals.

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, reported that as of Nov 10, 24% of Arizona’s general ward beds were used by COVID-19 patients—a 16% increase from a week before.

COVID hospitalizations align with the increasing trend of rising COVID-19 cases all over Arizona. As of Nov 7, Arizona’s COVID cases increased by 30% from the week prior, according to Gerald’s COVID report. From Nov 1 to Nov 9, Pima County cases increased by 38%, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said at a Nov. 17 press conference that 25% of cases reported in October were of vaccinated people. The breakthrough infection rate has risen from 1% to 1.2%, indicating to health officials that vaccines have lower effectiveness over time.

“Vaccination is not sufficient to prevent transmission and clearly vaccination does not last forever, it doesn’t work that way for the flu either,” Pima County Chief Medical Officer and Deputy County Administrator Dr. Francisco Garcia said during the Pima County Board of Supervisors Nov. 16 meeting.

Health officials found that breakthrough cases tend to happen at about six months after full vaccination. As a result, Pima County health officials are urging all Pima County residents to get a booster shot if it’s been six months since their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two months since their single shot of Johnson & Johnson. 

“We do expect the FDA and CDC to later this week look at the request from Pfizer to activate boosters for all individuals 18 and over,” Cullen said during a Nov 17 press conference.

“We got ahead of that because of our concern about the increasing number of cases

The Delta variant combined with public COVID fatigue, holiday festivities, sporting events, noncompliance with mitigation strategies, and waning immunity of the vaccinated is to blame for the spike in cases.”

The Delta variant is two to three times more transmissible than the original COVID strain, which means bad news for the County’s COVID-19 strategy. Current COVID vaccines are highly effective in keeping people out of the hospital. Banner Health reported on Nov. 16 that 80% of hospitalized COVID patients in Arizona are unvaccinated. 

Public fatigue over the pandemic is widespread and fewer people are continuing to follow mitigation measures as public events take place, according to health officials.

For example, the University of Arizona received criticism after photos and videos circulated on social media showing indoor basketball games and football games with large crowds of unmasked people.

“There are clear public health guidelines we want you to follow,” UA President Dr. Robert C. Robbins said during the UA virtual status update on Nov. 15. “To get in the building, you are going to have to have a mask and people are going to ask you nicely to do so.… I want to be clear, we will not, absolutely will not, tolerate people being abusive to the individuals who are there to serve you.”

Dr. Richard Carmona, the former surgeon general who is heading up the UA COVID task force, reported during the Nov 15 update several incidents in which staff, mostly students, were verbally abused by game attendees who disagreed with mitigation strategies and vaccination.

The County is particularly worried about the holiday season. Pima County Health Department’s COVID-19 school liaison Brian Eller said during the Nov 17 press conference that the County wants to keep schools open. To do so, Eller advised the public to wear a mask indoors if they are in close contact with family for the holidays and try to limit guests or have the event outside.

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