Week in COVID: Schools To Open, Disabled People Call for Vaccines

DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ gives a religious leader his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at an event last month.
DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ gives a religious leader his second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at an event last month. Arizona Department of Health Services
It's Tuesday, March 9. More than 827,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 16,300 have died as a result. Here's what happened in the last week:

Arizona is averaging 1,304 cases of COVID-19 each day. While the average number of daily new cases is still hovering at just above a thousand, the state is regularly seeing days with cases in the hundreds. The goal is to continue that downward trend. The most recent low saw an average of just 373 cases a day in September.

The portion of tests coming back positive is also dropping to acceptable ranges. Last week, 5 percent of tests were positive statewide. Five percent is generally considered, somewhat arbitrarily, a benchmark that means the spread of COVID-19 in the community is under control.

People with COVID-19 occupy only 15 percent of intensive-care beds statewide for the first time since early November. Overall, 16 percent of intensive-care beds are available as hospitals work through a backlog of non-COVID-19 patients and toward reestablishing the recommended 20 percent "safety margin." The number of people on ventilators has dropped as well, to just 112. That's a bit less than half of the 255 COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

The number of new deaths added to the state's total also seems to be dropping off. Arizona registered 348 COVID-19 deaths in the last seven days. That means the state has dropped one place to seventh in the nation for the number of per-capita weekly COVID-19 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Citing the improving numbers, Governor Doug Ducey has rescinded his order limiting capacity in indoor settings. Restaurants, movie theaters, and gyms can now operate at full capacity, as long as they continue enforcing physical distancing and mask-wearing requirements. The move came despite every county except three — Santa Cruz, Yavapai, and Yuma — showing a "substantial" spread of COVID-19, according to the state's benchmarks. Under the governor's scheme over the summer that established the capacity restrictions, congregate businesses in most counties would be shut down if the state health director had not decided to ignore the "substantial" category. Despite this, it's unclear what the full impact of Ducey's new order will be as small establishments are still limited in capacity by distancing requirements.

Ducey's order also specifically allows spring training to go ahead after getting a plan approved by the state Department of Health Services.  Local officials said they had no immediate plans to alter arrangements as a result of the order.

Schools must return to in-person instruction by next week. In another executive order, Ducey set March 15 or the end of spring break as a deadline for K-12 schools to resume offering in-person instruction. State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said she supports returning to school with layered mitigation strategies, but the timing of the governor's order may complicate things for schools that were already planning to return in person on a different timeline.

More than 2.19 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Arizona. More than 1.4 million people have received at least one dose and more than 797,000 have received all needed doses. That means around 11 percent of the state's population is protected. Experts say 70 to 90 percent of the state will need to be fully vaccinated to establish herd immunity. Currently, 96.1 percent of vaccines allocated to the state have been used.

Are people with disabilities being left behind? Last week, the state announced that it is moving to a new "hybrid" vaccination scheme based on age. The Arizona Department of Health Services said this would help allow older adults with chronic medical issues to get vaccinated sooner. However, this disrupted the previous plan, which would have seen people with high-risk medical conditions vaccinated shortly after essential workers and those living in congregate settings. Arizona Public Health Association head Will Humble said in a blog post that as many 16,000 people enrolled in a state home care program could be left behind, not to mention people stuck self-isolating due to medical vulnerabilities. People under the age of 55 with disabilities and their advocates held a press conference last week and asked to be prioritized for the vaccine. They also called for more accessibility at vaccine sites.

The CDC says it's safe for vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks. The recommendations released Monday say it is safe for vaccinated people to visit with each other in small groups and with non-vaccinated people who are low risk. The guidelines only apply to people who have received all needed doses of their vaccine and waited the time necessary after the final dose for the vaccine to be fully effective. "While the new guidance is a positive step, the vast majority of people need to be fully vaccinated before COVID-19 precautions can be lifted broadly," the agency said in a press release. "Until then, it is important that everyone continues to adhere to public health mitigation measures to protect the large number of people who remain unvaccinated."

If you want to try and sign up to get vaccinated, here's where to go. If you want to register inside Maricopa County, you can go here to find a location near you. If you want to register for somewhere in the rest of the state, go here.
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter