This Week in COVID: Deaths Dropping Sharply, Pima Feuding With State Health Officials

People line up to receive vaccines at the state-run site at State Farm Stadium.
People line up to receive vaccines at the state-run site at State Farm Stadium. Arizona Department of Health Services
It's Tuesday, March 23. More than 837,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 16,700 have died as a result. Here's what happened in the last week:

Arizona is averaging 481 cases of COVID-19 each day. The drop in average daily cases continues in fits and starts, but the overall decrease is undeniable. The last time cases were this low was the end of September as they climbed back up from a low of just 373 cases a day that month. While the total number of people getting tested for COVID-19 is low, the percentage of those tests coming back positive is hovering around 5 percent, a somewhat arbitrary benchmark that suggests the spread of COVID-19 in the community is under control.

People with COVID-19 occupy just 10 percent of intensive-care beds statewide for the first time since the end of October. Overall, 16 percent of intensive-care beds are available as hospitals work toward reestablishing the recommended 20 percent "safety margin." The number of people on ventilators has dropped as well, to just 79.

The number of new deaths added to the state's total also seems to be dropping off. Arizona registered 192 COVID-19 deaths in the last seven days. That still makes the state tenth in the nation for the number of COVID-19 deaths by population in the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A group of young people has been calling people with COVID-19 from their bedrooms. They are part of a team of volunteer contact tracers operating out of Arizona State University. The team runs 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Among the issues they see: people unable or unwilling to quarantine for financial reasons and people in denial about COVID-19.

"You never know if you're going to get a mom who's upset because her kid can't play soccer, right. And so sometimes, you have one of those calls and you're just like, 'Wow, you have completely lost perspective here,'" said ASU professor Megan Jehn. "And then, on the absolute opposite end, a woman who had recently lost her spouse, and she was serving as the proxy interviewee. He had just passed away in the ICU. Being on a call with somebody like that, that stays with you."

More than 2.94 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Arizona. More than 1.92 million people have received at least one dose, and more than 1.2 million have received all needed doses. That means at least 15 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, with more infectious variants requiring a percentage on the higher end of that range.

The state is opening up vaccinations to all adults as of tomorrow, March 24. Starting at 8 a.m., everyone in the state will be able to sign up to receive vaccines at state-run sites. Maricopa County has announced it is following suit at its sites. This also means that pharmacies and health clinics will be offering vaccinations to anyone who wants them.

The state's move came in the face of a surplus of vaccination appointments. Arizona Department of Health Services head Dr. Cara Christ said Friday that they were seeing more cancelations of appointments as people were able to receive the vaccine earlier than expected. The department is now opening up appointments each Friday for the following week at its sites. It is also setting aside a certain number of appointments for call centers each day. Christ said Monday that past surveys had shown only 55 to 60 percent of people may be willing to sign up for vaccinations, but some experts have speculated that number will grow with late adopters and doctors pushing their patients to get vaccinated. The state is also operating pop-up clinics and conducting townhalls in underserved ZIP codes in an effort to address early racial disparities in who has gotten vaccines in Arizona.

Vaccination efforts will be moved indoors or run overnight to address the heat in coming months. Christ said the State Farm Stadium site will transition to running overnight instead of during the day and the state is looking at indoor locations for large-scale vaccination sites. In addition to posing a hazard for workers or people waiting in line, heat is a complicating factor for managing vaccine doses, which require strict refrigeration and temperature controls.

The state turned down a federal mass vaccination site that would come with extra doses for Arizona. Christ said the state did not need the extra capacity and doses would be better allocated to existing sites. But Pima County said they had plans for the additional doses, which could have helped serve the Hispanic community. It's just the latest development in the feud between the county and state health authorities. Officials in Pima have complained that they were shortchanged in the vaccine rollout and are currently seeking reimbursement for COVID-19 testing that the state says it cannot provide.

One way to get vaccinated when appointments fill up is to volunteer at one of the state-run vaccination sites. Volunteering nonprofit HandsOn Greater Phoenix is offering opportunities here. Slots fill quickly, so monitor their Twitter and Instagram to be notified 30 minutes before new ones come online.

If you are eligible and 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