This Week in COVID: Vaccine Eligibility a Mess, Cases Numbers Dip Slightly

People line up to receive vaccines at State Farm Stadium.
People line up to receive vaccines at State Farm Stadium. Arizona Department of Health Services
It's Wednesday, January 20. More than 685,600 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 11,260 have died as a result. Here's what's happened in the last week:

Arizona is averaging 7,086 cases of COVID-19 each day. The average number of daily new cases has dropped in the last week, but is still higher than it was at the beginning of the year when the state was averaging 6,190 cases a day.

Hospital capacity is seeing similar trends. Statewide, 55 percent of inpatient beds are in use by COVID-19 patients, as are 61 percent of intensive-care beds. While that represents a drop of around five percentage points each since usage peaked a week ago, only 8 percent of total beds in either category are available statewide. This is well below the 20 percent "safety margin" of available beds that experts say is needed to enable regular hospital functioning and is no different from to the crisis situation hospitals have been in for weeks. More than 790 Arizonans are still on ventilators and more than 100 people have tubes stuck down their throats because they can't breathe otherwise.

The number of cases may continue to flatten, but it's a long road to go. University of Arizona epidemiologist Saskia Popescu told Phoenix New Times that the recent drop in new cases is promising and she hopes it's a sign that mitigation efforts are working. But she added that it's too early to tell if it's just an anomaly, and that hospital occupancy remains at concerning levels.

"I think it's important to emphasize that while this drop in cases and hospitalizations is very promising, we still need to maintain vigilance in infection prevention efforts, especially as we work to better understand the prevalence and impact of new variants," she wrote in an email.

Will Humble, head of the Arizona Public Health Association, said that cases may decrease slowly as the last impacts of holiday gatherings play out. However, Humble said that hospitals will then see a surge in non-COVID patients who are had to delay care because of a lack of capacity. Area hospitals have been canceling "elective" procedures, such as cancer surgeries, and these still-serious issues will need to be dealt with.

"You had backlog of people who needed care but aren't getting it," Humble said.

Leaders of five Valley hospital systems renewed their call for more proactive efforts to curb the spread of the virus. At a press conference last Wednesday, the chief clinical officers said they were actively preparing for the possibility of having to ration care. Additional areas of their hospitals have been converted into COVID-19 wards, and they are bringing back medical personnel from retirement.

More than 2,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Arizona since the beginning of the year. Around 40 percent of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred since the beginning of December. On Tuesday, St. Mary's Basilica Catholic church in Phoenix rang it's bell 400 times — once for each thousand Americans killed by COVID-19.

Governor Doug Ducey downplayed the local situation in a radio interview and said the state would be able to vaccinate its way out of the crisis without additional mitigation.

"We said we'd have more cases in December and more hospitalizations in January. And that's what we're seeing. So, this too shall pass," Ducey said. When asked about experts who said that the vaccine would not be enough to curb the current crisis, the governor disagreed.

"We will be able to vaccinate our way out of this," he said. "The vaccine is the only solution. It is the first solution that has presented itself since January 27 [2020] when we saw the first case. And Arizona is doing it right now as good as any state in the nation and we're going to keep it up."

Ducey made the remarks on January 14 in an interview on KTAR 92.3's The Mike Broomhead Show as part of a string of media appearances. He has not appeared at a public press event in weeks.

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People line up to receive vaccines at the state-run site at State Farm Stadium.
Arizona Department of Health Services

As of Monday, 297,386 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Arizona. Statewide, 36,375 people have received the two doses needed to receive most of the protective effects of a vaccination. Experts say that even with a focus on vulnerable elderly and long-term care residents, it will be months before  vaccinations dramatically lower the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19. Reaching herd immunity to defeat the virus will take much longer.

February slots for state-run sites became available at 9 a.m. Tuesday and were full by the end of the day. Arizonans trying to sign up themselves or elderly relatives reported on Twitter that they had to repeatedly refresh the state sign-up website in order to get appointments to show up. In total, nearly 150,00 people signed up to get vaccinations either at State Farm Stadium or a new state site at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Local vaccination efforts continue to ramp up, but still remain heavily limited by the number of vaccine doses available. There is no current availability at county-run vaccination sites.

The number of pharmacies offering COVID-19 jabs will continue to increase. Currently, a small number of pharmacies in Maricopa County are offering vaccinations to people aged 75 or older. Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said at a press briefing last Friday that Arizona was receiving enough vaccine doses to activate a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program for pharmacy vaccinations. The goal is to eventually make COVID-19 shots as easy to get as flu shots, but that goal is months away.

Differences between who the state and county are offering vaccinations to are causing confusion and frustration. Maricopa County is only currently vaccinating K-12 educators, daycare workers, public protection officers, and people aged 75 and older. However, the state is also vaccinating people aged 65 and older and higher-ed employees. Nobody told local community college employees this, so instructors teaching in-person classes were left behind as ASU faculty teaching online-only classes received the chance to be vaccinated.

Some otherwise-ineligible people are being given extra doses of the COVID-19 vaccine when they take people to be vaccinated at State Farm Stadium. Valleywise Health's Dr. Sam Durrani said his wife, a nurse, was offered a dose when she took his parents to receive her vaccination. (She declined because she'd already been vaccinated.) Others have reported being given vaccines when they took elderly relatives to be vaccinated.

Arizona Department of Health Services spokesperson Steve Elliott said that the decision is made on-site as a way to avoid waste if extra vaccine doses have been readied or become available due to a no-show. He said that people running the site also consider if the person is a caretaker for the eligible person they're bringing in or in a different vulnerable group. He does not recommend bringing additional individuals to appointments because there's no guarantee extra vaccine will be available.

Kelsey Miller, a self-described homemaker, told New Times she was planning on going with her parents when they get vaccinated in two weeks anyway, but now she hopes to also receive an extra vaccine, if possible. "If people no-show for their appointments or there is an extra dose in some of the vials, they should go into someone’s arm instead of the trash," she said in a Twitter message.

ASU COVID-19 guru Joshua LaBaer told the media last Wednesday that vaccine experts say it's important to balance getting vaccinations to the most needy without wasting doses due to over-policing of eligibility.

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. There is also a statewide map of vaccination locations.
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.