Arizona's COVID-19 numbers are currently quite bad.
More than 10,800 people in the state have died of the virus, and in recent weeks Arizona's infection rate — the number of people infected compared to the population of the state — has regularly ranked highest in the nation. An ASU researcher estimated last week that one in 10 Arizonans currently has COVID-19, whether they know it or not. Leaders from major Valley hospital chains said Wednesday that without relief they will soon face the possibility of deciding who receives care and who doesn't.
This morning, though, Governor Doug Ducey appeared on KTAR 92.3's The Mike Broomhead Show and attempted to downplay the situation.
"Right now at this time, just as we said, we'd have a second wave," Ducey said. "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 went on to speculate that a slight dip in the number of inpatient beds being used by COVID-19 patients today signaled that the surge had peaked and cases would begin to go down.
But while the number of hospital beds in use has fluctuated slightly from day to day since cases began to increase again in early October, the overall pattern has been one of a constant climb. Hospital occupancy is currently at record levels, as it has been since early December.
Will Humble, head of the Arizona Public Health Association, tells Phoenix New Times that the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is expected to continue to increase through at least next week as the state continues to feel the impact of holiday gatherings. Even if the infection rate flattens, he says, the current levels are unsustainable.
"You're way past the speed limit and you decide, 'We'll hold off at 85 in a 50,'" Humble says. "You're still at high risk of going off the road."
And while it's true that, as Ducey said this morning, a surge was expected in the winter, it was never expected to reach current levels.
“I don’t think any of us expected it to be as bad it is,” said Joshua LaBaer, Arizona State University Biodesign Institute executive director, all the way back in November.
In the KTAR interview, Ducey responded to experts who said that the current vaccine rollout will not be enough to avert the current crisis and more mitigation measures are needed.
"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  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."
Experts have said that it will take months to reach the level of vaccinations needed to achieve herd immunity and end the virus' spread. In the short term, it may be possible to relieve hospital capacity through targeting vulnerable populations, like the elderly, but Humble expects that won't make a difference until next month at the earliest. "There's just going to be a lot of dead people in the meantime," Humble told the Washington Post earlier this month.
Asked last Friday if the state's strategy was to try and vaccinate its way out of the crisis without mitigation, Arizona Department of Health Services head Cara Christ denied that this was the case, pointing out that the state is still enforcing the mitigation measures that remain in place.
Now, it seems the governor has said the quiet part out loud.
Reached by New Times, the governor's spokesperson, C.J. Karamargin, emphasized that while mitigation measures are still in place, the vaccine provides an ultimate solution that they do not.
"It is not the only weapon," Karamargin said of the vaccine, pointing to state requirements for reduced capacity in congregate settings and the mask mandates in major municipalities. He said what is driving the current outbreaks are private gatherings and pointed out that medical professionals had called for personal responsibility as well as more mitigation.
"It doesn't seem enough emphasis is put on the personal responsibility part," he added. (There has been some disagreement on the role that small gatherings play as opposed to restaurants or other public settings.)
Karamargin also pointed out that states that have employed stronger lockdowns than Arizona have also seen surges in cases. "Let's look at what works," he said.
In the radio interview, Ducey echoed the same message, claiming that lockdowns don't affect public health. Personal responsibility is the most effective way to control the virus, said the governor, whose son posted videos of himself at a packed party two weeks ago.
Humble disagreed strongly with the governor's claim that lockdowns don't affect public health.
"That's false," he said. "It's just false. Mitigation works. He's discounting his own intervention in late June."
Humble pointed out that cases dropped precipitously when the governor closed bars, theaters, and other congregate settings for six weeks around the time he allowed local jurisdictions to institute mask mandates.
In the meantime, the governor said the state is focused on providing enough hospital staffing to take care of sick patients. In some ways, this is a return to the governor's message at the beginning of the summer spike in June: COVID-19 cases may be reaching record highs, but at least you can go to the hospital after you get sick.
Listen to the governor's full interview here: