Doctor as a surgeon in the emergency room in blue surgical clothing with surgical mask and hood

The state passed a grim milestone last week, with more than 20,000 Arizonans dying after contracting COVID-19.

A total of 20,137 people in Arizona had died from the disease as of Monday, Oct 4, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. A total of 1,104,535 had tested positive for the virus.

Although the CDC reports that 62% of the adult population has been vaccinated in the state, Arizona remains on a plateau with the number of weekly cases holding steady at about 237 per 100,000 as of the week ending Sept. 26, according to Dr. Joe Gerald of the UA Zucker College of Public Health.

“Arizona continues to experience a high number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths with conditions deteriorating in the short-term,” said Gerard, an epidemiologist who has been tracking the novel coronavirus since it emerged in Arizona in March 2020. “The state continues to feed the remaining susceptible population into the COVID-19 grinder with no end in sight. With waning vaccine efficacy and a potentially short duration of acquired immunity, there is little reason to believe the unvaccinated can evade infection with the considerably higher risk of severe outcome it entails.” 

Pima County was seeing 162 cases per 100,000 as of the week of Sept. 26, according to Gerald.

Gerald noted that hospital occupancy remained “above seasonal levels” as of Sept. 29, with COVID patients making up 20% of patients in general ward beds and 29% of ICU beds.

“Available excess capacity is nearly as low as it was at the worst of the winter 2020/2021 surge,” Gerald said. 

Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said last week that Banner’s ICU capacity has been unseasonably high for the past four weeks. The total number of ICU patients at Banner exceeds that of the summer 2020 COVID surge.

“The main problem is that we have too many COVID patients in our hospitals,” Bessel said during a Sept. 29 press conference.

Bessel cited recent figures showing that 90% of COVID patients hospitalized, in ICU beds and on ventilators, are unvaccinated.

Banner’s problems are compounded by the difficulty of keeping skilled staff. Bessel said hospital staff are worn out after fighting COVID for the last year and a half.

Banner is looking to fill positions for nurses, respiratory therapists, clinicians, and physicians. Bessel said this is the most necessary resource strained by COVID surges. Banner has been and continues to hire out-of-state contract labor every week to meet hospital needs.

Bessel pleaded with the unvaccinated public to make a vaccine appointment ahead of the projected winter surge. Health experts predict that COVID, flu and respiratory virus infections will increase during the winter.

“So all health care systems are able to be available for you and your families that need us, please get vaccinated against COVID,” Bessel said.

Bessel also warned the public about West Nile virus. She said sister hospitals are experiencing more cases of West Nile virus due to a heavy monsoon season creating a rich breeding environment for mosquitos that carry the virus.

“If you’re going outside and you live in an area that has a lot of mosquitoes, wear mosquito repellent,” she said. “Also, if you have a backyard or anywhere else where there’s standing water, please try and make sure that you reduce that.”

According to the CDC, people infected with West Nile virus can experience fever, severe illnesses and even death. There are no vaccines or medications to treat West Nile virus.

 

Other COVID developments 

• After a Maricopa County judge struck down the state’s ban on mask mandates, ruling that the Arizona Legislature passed it in an unconstitutional manner, most local school districts, including Amphitheater, Flowing Wells and Tucson Unified, said they would keep mask requirements in place for

students.

But the Marana School District governing board declined to extend the mask mandate past Sept. 29.

In a special meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 29, board member John Lewandowski asked the board to extend the mask mandate, but the motion died for the lack of a second.

New data from 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.

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