Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel

Banner’s top clinical leader began a press conference Friday with a message Arizonans haven’t heard in a long time.

“Positive COVID-19 cases are on the decline nationally and locally here in Arizona,” said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief clinical officer of the state’s largest hospital system. “The positivity rate in Arizona, though still very high, has declined slightly from its peak the last week of December and COVID hospitalizations have been going down since Jan. 11.”

However, she said it's not time to let up on coronavirus mitigation efforts.

Arizona holds the country’s highest transmission rate at 96 cases per 100,000 population, according to CDC data. She also said COVID-19 patients account for 62% of the state’s hospitalizations.

“While we are pleased to see these numbers trending down, we are still experiencing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in Arizona,” she said. “The state continues to lead the U.S. with the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the country.”

On Friday, Arizona passed the grim milestone of 12,000 COVID-19 deaths.

“Knowing that we have lost 12,000 Arizonans to COVID-19 weighs on our hearts and minds each and every day,” Bessel said. “My thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones to COVID. We are going to battle this virus every day in our hospitals and we are committed to saving as many lives as we can.”

According to Bessel, bouncing back from the ongoing surge in cases will take much longer than it did during the summer surge, and she estimates the state won’t reach pre-surge hospitalization levels for another 10 or 11 weeks.

State hospitalizations are 700% higher than they were on Nov. 1, while the number of patients on ventilators has increased by 1,000%, Bessel said.

Banner hospitals will resume some elective surgeries

Due to the slight decrease in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Bessel announced Banner will resume some elective surgeries on Monday.

While some surgeries will continue to be delayed based on capacity, outpatient surgeries and procedures that require no more than a one-night stay and no care in the ICU will resume.

All Banner hospitals will proceed with elective surgeries, but the ultimate decision to conduct a surgery will depend on conditions at each facility.

“Each individual hospital will be making their own decision based on a number of different factors, including what their overall capacity is in their hospital and what their staffing looks like,” Bessel said.

Coronavirus mutations could result in spring surge

Bessel said that of the three known mutations of COVID-19 under investigation - the UK variant, the South African variant and the Brazilian variant - only the UK variant, which is much more contagious, has been found in the United States.

Although current COVID-19 vaccines appear to work against the UK variant, the clinical officer estimates it could be the most dominant strain in the nation as early as March.

“That could be a concern for spring. What we ask everybody to do is just continue to mitigate and take your own personal accountability, that will help reduce spread of whichever variant is out there,” Bessel said. “We do believe that the vaccine is absolutely effective against the UK variant and continued vaccine will help us reduce the spread and hopefully reduce the likelihood of a spring surge.”

Continued vaccine shortage puts strain on immunity efforts

While the COVID-19 vaccine likely protects against the UK variant, there’s a serious shortage of vaccine supply outstripping the demand for them.

“We do have limited vaccine available, which is why within the state, within the counties and within the vaccination site, we are following a prescriptive tiering of going through those individuals that are most needed to get vaccinated,” Bessel said. “We don't have enough vaccine to meet the demand of the tiers that we already have in play, and we certainly don't have enough vaccine at this time to reach herd immunity. As we continue to receive additional vaccine, and as the federal program continues to hopefully be augmented, that will have benefit to us here in Arizona.”

While Bessel expects the decline in cases from the winter surge to take many weeks, she encourages all Arizonans to continue essential mitigation practices to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Although Pima County residents are no longer under a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew after a judge put a temporary halt on it, Bessel encourages everyone to stay home as much as possible.

“We do know that mitigation, enforcement and personal accountability absolutely does work. Pima cases have absolutely been improved by some of those efforts,” she said. “At this time, as the curfew may no longer be able to be in place, I would just ask all of you to take personal accountability. Please shrink your circles, wear your mask. And when it's time for you to get vaccinated, please go and do so, that will help us keep cases down, hospitalizations down, ICU stays down and ultimately result in fewer deaths."