This Week in COVID: Holiday Travel Could Cause at Least 600 Additional Arizona Deaths

This Week in COVID: Holiday Travel Could Cause at Least 600 Additional Arizona Deaths
Image by Tobias Rehbein from Pixabay

It's Tuesday, November 24. More than 302,324 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 6,464  have died as a result. Here's what happened in the last week:

The state is averaging over 3,100 new cases of COVID-19 each day. That's an increase of 1,100 more cases each day from just a week ago. The last time daily cases were this high and rising was July 1, five days before the summer peak.

The COVID Tracking Project

This time there's no sign we're approaching a slowdown. While the virus is spreading more slowly than over the summer due to mask-wearing and the proportion of the population already infected, cases are still increasing exponentially, said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute. LaBaer said predicting a peak would require signs that the current rate of spread is slowing, which there are no indicators of. “There’s nothing to indicate that anything is slowing,” he said.

The number of intensive-care beds used by COVID-19 patients is well below what it was at this point in the last surge, but that's only temporary. Doctors have gotten better at treating patients outside of hospitals and hospital usage is a "lagging indicator," meaning it takes time for current cases to be reflected in the number of people hospitalized.

Arizona hospitals are on track to hit capacity on December 31, according to ASU modeling obtained by Phoenix TV station ABC15 (KNXV-TV). That doesn't factor in the potential impact of holiday travel. If as many travel for people Thanksgiving and Christmas as normal, hospitals will reach capacity on December 13. Even if people only travel for Thanksgiving and stay home for Christmas, estimates based on Canada's Thanksgiving show that hospitals will reach capacity on December 15. "Without additional public health measures, holiday gatherings are likely to cause 600-1,200 additional deaths from COVID-19 in Arizona by February 1 beyond current scenario death projections," the report concludes.

Hospitals are already feeling the impact. As of Sunday, Banner Health, Arizona's largest healthcare provider, is once again banning non-essential visitors from hospitals. Two other Valley hospital chains are doing the same. While COVID-19 patients are a smaller proportion of patients than over the summer, overall ICU capacity is being stretched by the total number of patients. Making matters worse, experts say that it will be harder to staff hospitals as out-of-state nursing reinforcements are tied up elsewhere. Valleywise Health Medical Center in Phoenix has seen the number of patients at a pediatric-ward-turned-COVID-19-unit double in the last two weeks.
As cases spiked, Governor Doug Ducey on Wednesday made his first public appearance since October. Freshly back from his vacation out of state, Ducey acknowledged the situation but stopped short of instituting a statewide mask mandate or other aggressive mitigation measures. The governor said he wanted to give some "straight talk" and claimed that there were two camps: those who believed COVID-19 was a hoax, and those who wanted to "lock everything down."

"Most of the public isn't part of either camp and, by the way, neither am I," he said, adding he believed in targeted approaches to controlling COVID-19.

The new measures Ducey announced were: stepped up messaging, $25 million to support hospital staffing, an order to ensure mask-wearing at schools and on school buses, offering testing at major airports, and an executive order that will help the state monitor the rollout of any vaccines.

The pushback to Ducey's press conference was widespread. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who has publicly called for wider state action to protect schools' ability to stay open, said more aggressive action was needed. Democratic leaders in the State Legislature released statements calling the measures inadequate. Republican State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita pointed out that masks were already required in schools, saying that "doubling down on what has already been done to appease those who will never be satisfied is a fool’s errand."

Arizona Public Health Association Director Will Humble also blasted Ducey's announcement in a blog post.

"Many weeks of opportunities to benefit from better enforcement in bars and restaurants and a uniform and enforceable statewide mask mandate have now been missed," Humble wrote. "Because of that, far more stringent measures would be needed at this point to prevent a hospital capacity crisis. Today’s announcements were trivial and will have a negligible effect. "

On Friday morning, the mayors of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, and Tolleson called on the governor to impose a statewide mask mandate and said they hadn't heard from Ducey directly in months. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said at the press conference that one of her neighbors had recently been killed by COVID-19. The mayors faced some tough questions about their enforcement of COVID-19 mitigation measures, such as mask mandates, locally.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against traveling or gathering with people outside your home for Thanksgiving. If you do travel, the centers' guidance and factors to consider are here. The Arizona Department of Health Services released guidance for mitigating risk for Thanksgiving gatherings here. If you do gather, the agency recommends minimizing the number of guests, doing so spread-out outside and wearing masks.

If you want to get tested for COVID-19, you can find locations statewide here. ASU is offering unlimited, free, quick-turnaround COVID-19 testing at drive-thru sites across the state. You can sign-up here with the code SALIVATEST. However, ASU's LaBaer recommends against trying to "game the system" by getting a test before Thanksgiving, pointing out it can take several days for tests to come up positive after an infection.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.