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The latest COVID-19 report from a University of Arizona professor shows an increase in already alarming coronavirus numbers as the state continues to set records for weekly case counts. Those numbers are likely even higher in reality because of a backlog in reporting.

Dr. Joe Gerald, who creates weekly coronavirus epidemiology reports based on Arizona Department of Health Services data, had little good news to share in this week’s report.

“The [coronavirus] is mowing through Arizona like a sharpened scythe,” Gerald wrote in the report. “Fatalities are stacking up like cordwood in advance of a long winter. Barring intervention, daily cases and fatalities will double or perhaps quadruple before the outbreak collapses under the weight of natural, not vaccine-induced, immunity later this spring.”

The week ending Jan. 3 saw 56,108 new COVID-19 cases statewide, a 35% increase from the week prior.

Coronavirus testing positivity reached 35% that week, setting a new record for the state.

Arizona has also surpassed its deadliest week from the summer surge in cases, and the week ending Dec. 20 now holds the highest number of COVID-19 deaths at 709. Gerald predicts weekly death counts will exceed 700 in the coming weeks.

Gerald said testing capacity and uptake remains lower than levels observed on Dec. 20, indicating the reported numbers are likely higher in reality.

“The test positivity rate for traditional . . . PCR testing set another record this week at 35% positivity,” he wrote. “This indicates a substantial mismatch between testing capacity and demand and supports the notion that viral transmission is growing faster than case counts alone would suggest, that our viral control measures are wholly inadequate, and our testing capacity compared to other regions is poor.”

Pima County reported 7,470 positive COVID-19 tests the week ending Jan. 3, a 25% increase from the previous week, Gerald reported.

Furthermore, the CDC has indicated Arizona has a faster transmission rate than any other state.

As of Jan. 3, new COVID-19 cases in Arizona were appearing at a rate of 780 cases per 100,000 of the population, a rate that’s increasing by nearly 220 cases per 100,000 a week.

Hospitals continue to feel COVID-19 strain

Gerald reported that as of Jan. 7, 57% of the state’s general ward hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. Of Arizona’s ICU beds, 63% held coronavirus patients.

“COVID-19 occupied ICU beds and percent occupancy have never been higher.”

Many of the state’s hospitals are having to prioritize care, and according to Gerald, patients who would’ve received in-patient hospital care four to eight weeks ago are now receiving care in outpatient settings.

“Make no mistake, the COVID-19 crisis is now placing a greater share of Arizonans at risk, not just those unfortunate enough to contract COVID-19,” he said. “Nevertheless, the fact that our hospitals have demonstrated such resilience is a testament to the planning, skill, and sacrifice of many health professionals and administrators who will likely never be recognized.”

Call to action

Gerald is calling for a statewide shelter-in-place order to slow transmission of the virus, with state funds allocated to “alleviate food insecurity, to prevent evictions and foreclosures, and to protect access to health services.”

Gerald acknowledged further statewide mitigation is unlikely under Gov. Doug Ducey and said mitigation policy should be granted to counties to implement and enforce.

“While Arizonans’ poor individual decisions are undoubtedly contributing to viral spread, the Governor’s inaction in the face of a clear and present danger is of greater concern,” he said. “Most recently, he has performed more poorly than other governors, but more importantly, he has performed more poorly compared to his prior success this summer.”