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With the fourth week in a row of declining COVID-19 cases in Pima County, Arizona has evolved from a state of “crisis” to one of “elevated risk,” according to Dr. Joe Gerald, a University of Arizona professor who creates weekly coronavirus epidemiology reports based on Arizona Department of Health Services data.

According to Gerald’s latest report, the week ending Feb. 7 saw a 35% decrease in coronavirus cases from the week prior.

The amount of COVID-19 patients in the state’s general ward beds decreased by 25% the week of Feb. 12 from the week before, while ICU bed usage dropped 17%, according to Gerald.

“With continued improvements being forecast over the next 4 weeks, hospital capacity is adequate to meet Arizona’s most critical needs,” the professor wrote in the report. “Nevertheless, it will be many months before the backlog of non-COVID care can be fully addressed.”

In Pima County, the week ending Feb. 7 saw a 33% drop from the previous week, Gerald reports.

Furthermore, for the first time in 2021, two of the indicators on Pima County’s COVID-19 progress report, which tracks key epidemiological factors to make recommendations to business schools, have improved.

Adequate hospital capacity and timely case investigation metrics have moved from the “not met” to “progress” category.

Timely case investigation tracks how long it takes for the county’s case investigators to reach an individual who’s tested positive COVID-19 after they’re diagnosed.

Cases over two consecutive weeks, percent positivity for the virus and the predominance of COVID-19 like illness remain in the “criteria not met” category.

Although hospitals are seeing a slight reprieve, they remain under pressure, according to Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen.

“At the same time [hospital availability] moved to yellow, we also do note that today is the 100th day when we have had less than 10% availability in our ICU beds as well as our general medical-surgical beds, those are our adult beds,” Cullen said at a press conference on Friday. “So at the same time, while we have some movement in the right direction, we remain concerned about our hospitalization.”

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According to the latest Pima County data, the last four weeks have seen 7,100 COVID-19 cases the week beginning Jan. 10, 5,288 cases the week of Jan. 17, 3,777 cases the week of Jan. 24 and 2,490 cases from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6.

Hospitalizations have also decreased in these four weeks, with 355 reported the week of Jan. 10, 286 the week of Jan. 17, 239 the week of Jan. 24 and 139 the week of Jan. 31.

In the same four-week timeframe, the county reported 165, 170, 98 and 53 coronavirus deaths respectively.

While COVID-19 statistics appear to be declining, the transmission of the virus throughout the county is consistent with its summer peak in cases, according to Gerald.

The professor says resuming “lower risk” activities won’t be reasonable until COVID-19 cases fall below 100 new cases per 100,000 of the population. Arizona is seeing about 250 new cases per 100,000 residents a week. 

Arizona holds the 14th highest rate for transmission in the country, according to the CDC. Gerald says the state is the 6th hardest hit in terms of identified cases.

The professor reports the week of Jan. 17 remains Arizona’s deadliest at 995 reported COVID-19 deaths, and deaths will remain high for the next four to six weeks.

According to ADHS, three cases of the COVID-19 variant first discovered in the UK have been discovered in the state. While none of the more contagious mutations has been found in Pima County, Cullen said the county is sending 50 to 75 test samples a week to the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) lab, which is partnering with the state to identify the variants.

“We are helping the state collect samples from other laboratories in the county to make sure that we can have early eyes on any variants. I will tell you that as of now, we have not had any variation reported to us,” Cullen said. “TGen did just get a large sample this week and we'll let you know as soon as we hear anything about that.”

Approximately 4% of Arizonans have received the two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine needed to be considered fully immunized. However, Pima County’s vaccine supply has been significantly limited.

While Gerald said another influx of coronavirus cases is possible this spring, those most at-risk for severe outcomes will have been vaccinated.

“While I believe this current outbreak will be Arizona’s largest, a smaller wave is possible this spring. However, the spring wave will pose a lesser threat as most at risk of hospitalization and death will have been vaccinated,” Gerald said. "Of course, major viral mutations remain a concern as well as the duration of immunity. However, the short-term outlook remains favorable.”