This Week in COVID: Cases Are Down, but Infectious Variant Threatens Progress

State troopers line up to receive vaccinations at the second state-run vaccine site on Monday, February 1.
State troopers line up to receive vaccinations at the second state-run vaccine site on Monday, February 1. Arizona Department of Public Safety
It's Tuesday, February 2. More than 765,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 13,360 have died as a result. Here's what happened in the last week:

Arizona is averaging 4,634 cases of COVID-19 each day. The average number of new cases each day has continued to drop since peaking in the second week of January. Despite the decrease, the number of people being infected with COVID-19 still remains worse than over the summer. An average of 3,844 people were infected each day at the peak of that surge.

Arizona is still leading the country for the number of COVID-19 cases by population in the last week. The state averaged 70.3 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The next worst state, South Carolina, averaged 69.5 cases per 100,000 people. Oregon continues to do the best in the continental United States, with an average of 14.4 cases per 100,000 people. Arizona dropped to third for the number of deaths by population in the last week, behind Alabama and Iowa.

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is decreasing steadily but still high. The number of intensive-care beds in use statewide had dropped slowly in recent days. Currently, 52 percent of beds are in use by COVID-19 patients. Overall, the number of patients is around what it was at the peak of the summer. Only about 10 percent of overall ICU beds remain available as non-COVID-19 patients have filled the gap. The number of intubations is also down, and the state finally saw two days where fewer than 100 people had to have tubes stuck down their throats in order to keep them alive.

Hospitals may not be headed straight for disaster anymore, but they're still stretched. Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Marjorie Bessel told the media last Wednesday that they are still deploying corporate employees and thousands of out-of-state workers to deal with the volume of patients. "Patient care in our hospitals has not yet returned to a state that I would define as usual and customary, and I would caution you against celebrating too early as we slowly work our way out of this surge," she said.

On Friday, January 29, Arizona's COVID-19 death toll passed 13,000 people. Death numbers generally lag behind the number of new infections, meaning that the death numbers are expected to continue to be high for the next few weeks. It took just a week for the death toll to climb from 12,000 to 13,000.

Updated ASU modeling predicts that the current trend of decreasing cases will continue. The modeling team released its updated findings last Thursday. The decrease will allow hospitals to eventually decompress over time if current trends hold. "There is now a window of opportunity to establish a pandemic management paradigm that can avoid future over-runs of the hospital system rather than laissez-faire health policy," the team wrote.

Falling case numbers are threatened by the spread of more infectious COVID-19 variants.
On Friday, state officials announced that three cases of the so-called U.K. variant had been confirmed in the state. Known as B.1.1.7, the variant emerged in September of last year. It spreads between people more quickly and efficiently than the current form of the virus that's predominate in Arizona. Hospital leaders said they are monitoring the situation closely. "This is not a time to let our guard down,” Valleywise Health Chief Clinical Officer Michael White said on Wednesday.

The U.K. variant is not vaccine resistant, but other strains may be. Variants from Brazil and South Africa that have now reached the U.S. have the potential to be less responsive to current vaccines. Vaccine manufacturers are working to develop booster shots to address them, but each additional person the virus infects increases the odds of a new mutation occurring. Variants are also developing in the United States, but experts say Arizona is not doing enough to track them.

The good news is we already know how to deal with variants. Physical distancing, mask wearing, and staying home when possible are all effective ways of preventing spread. Eating indoors at a restaurant or going to a "small" gathering are not.

Asked about the variants, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ emphasized the need to wear masks and stay physically distant. She also said that they were one of the reasons the state was trying to distribute vaccines as quickly as possible. Dr. Christ was speaking at the opening of the second state-run vaccination site in Maricopa County. Speaking at the same event, Arizona State University president Michael Crow had even stronger words.

"If you're not wearing mask, it means you don't really care about the people around you. Period. End of conversation," he said. "If you're not getting vaccinated that means you're not concerned if you're actually going to die from this virus."

The state-run site will only be able to administer 500 of the 12,000 doses it's capable of each day due to a lack of vaccines. "What we need right now ... are more vaccines," Governor Doug Ducey said on CNN over the weekend. "We're in danger of running out of the vaccines we have." The state had requested an additional 300,000 vaccines from the federal government — citing the increase in seasonal visitor and migrant workers — but the request was denied.

Vice President Kamala Harris has been making Arizona media appearances to push the Biden administration's COVID relief bill. Harris told the Arizona Republic that the White House wants to speed up vaccinations in Arizona by passing the legislations. However, when Phoenix news station ABC15 asked her how the denial of additional vaccines matched up with the Biden administration's pledge to boost vaccination efforts, Harris completely ignored the question and repeated a jumble of talking points about supporting state officials. Politico reported last week that the Biden administration is struggling to wrap its arms around the shambles of a national vaccination program left by President Donald Trump and track down thousands of unaccounted-for vaccine doses.

As of Monday, more than 671,500 doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been distributed statewide. Just over 102,00 people have received the second dose needed to activate immunity from the virus. That's around 1.4 percent of the population. Experts say we will need to reach 70 to 90 percent immunization to achieve herd immunity.

Ducey is trying to push providers to use as much of their allocated vaccines as possible. Last week, he issued an order requiring all vaccine providers to report detailed usage data. Those who had used less than 40 percent of their allocation had to submit a plan to dramatically increase their efforts or face confiscation by the state. The governor's office said the order was driven partially by data showing that some providers still had 100 percent of their allocated doses.

Some people are signing up to volunteer at vaccination sites in the hopes of getting extra vaccines at the end of the day.  "An hour into it, I looked at the medic and said, 'Could you just give me the vaccine now?' She said sure," said one 65-year-old insurance agent. Officials say that the practice is a way of ensuring extra doses aren't wasted. In the first month of vaccinations, 553 doses had to be discarded at county sites sites due to no-shows or technical issues. An Arizona Department of Health Services spokesperson said no doses had been wasted at State Farm Stadium, but two public health experts said that is unlikely.

click to enlarge Maricopa County is currently in the prioritized phase of 1B. The chart doesn't reflect that the fact that the county is currently prioritizing only K-12 educators and childcare providers. The state is following similar guidelines but including people 65 and older. - MARICOPA COUNTY
Maricopa County is currently in the prioritized phase of 1B. The chart doesn't reflect that the fact that the county is currently prioritizing only K-12 educators and childcare providers. The state is following similar guidelines but including people 65 and older.
Maricopa County

If you want to try and sign up to get vaccinated, here's where to go.
If you meet the county criteria outlined above, you can go here to find out where to sign up. If you're 75 or older you can also check out the pharmacies listed on the same page. If you meet that criteria, are a higher-ed educator, or are someone aged 65 or older, you can register for a state-run site here — although state-run sites are full through the end of the month. There is a statewide map of vaccination locations.
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter