TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — With Covid-19 on the rise by virtually every metric, Arizona’s political and health care leaders are urging the public to hunker down for the holidays and skip gatherings with people outside their households.
“We know that’s a lot to ask this time of year, but the holidays will come again; sit this one out,” a group of health officials asked in a recent open letter. “Use the internet and telephones to communicate with family and friends.”
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 142 new deaths from the virus Friday, bringing the total to 7,819 since the pandemic began. The number of cases rose to 442,671, or one out of every 16 Arizonans. One in every 920 residents has now died from the disease, the state reported.
Hospitals are strained, with the number of people currently admitted with Covid-19 exceeding summer totals. By Friday, Covid-19 patients occupied 915 of the state’s 1,767 adult intensive-care beds, leaving just 128 beds available, according to the state health department.
Banner Health, Arizona’s largest hospital operator, brought in two refrigerator trucks to back up hospital morgues, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Banner’s chief medical officer, said at a Friday news conference. Bessel noted a decline in Covid-19 cases in Colorado and Wyoming, where the health care company also has hospitals, which she attributed to strict mandates on masks.
“Here in Arizona, unfortunately, we continue to experience exponential growth in the virus, with total cases, positivity rate, and hospitalizations all rising,” she said.
The state’s R-number, a measure of the virus’ spread, is 1.15, among the worst in the nation. Half of all hospital patients are Covid-19 positive, Bessel said.
In a direct appeal to the public last week, 27 health officials including Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen — who has since tested positive for Covid-19 — and administrators and medical leaders from area hospitals and first-responder organizations urged Arizonans to skip their usual holiday visits and stay home.
Relief is coming in the form of the vaccine that will be available to more and more people in coming months, the officials wrote.
“In the meantime, we are witnessing a dramatic spike of virus transmission. Please, for you, your family and your community, do your part this month to stop the spread,” the letter said.
On Wednesday, Governor Doug Ducey and Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state Department of Health Services, offered a Covid-19 update at a Phoenix news conference in which they asked Arizonans to forgo large gatherings.
Ducey has urged Arizonans to wear masks and socially distance but has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate. He lifted a closure order on restaurants, bars and other businesses earlier than many other governors. On Wednesday, he urged residents to avoid gathering with people outside their households.
“If you look at where our spread is happening from right now, it’s really happening from gatherings in private settings, and that’s why I’m asking for the public to keep their guard up,” Ducey said.
The governor, a Republican and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, pushed the blame for the Covid-19 spike onto cities and counties across the state. Arizona’s main population centers — Maricopa and Pima counties, which include Phoenix and Tucson — passed mask mandates, and a curfew is in effect in Pima County, but nothing is being enforced, Ducey said.
“If many of these leaders that are reaching out and asking for additional measures would actually enforce and have accountability around the steps that are already there, we can further reduce the spread of this and save lives,” Ducey said.
The vaccine rollout in Arizona includes 385,000 doses to be received before the end of the month. The first doses will go to health care workers, then to vulnerable residents and Native American nations, then to the general public, the governor said.
National Guard and other troops will help with vaccination, said Air Force Maj. General Michael T. McGuire, director of the state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. There are now 697 medical personnel training in Maricopa County. They will be deployed to rural counties and tribes that ask for help, McGuire said.
An additional 24 medical personnel from the U.S. Navy will spend six weeks helping on the Navajo Nation, he said.
Health care workers started getting the Covid-19 vaccine across the state this week. Emily Beck, a Phoenix intensive-care nurse for Banner Health, got the vaccine Wednesday at a drive-through set up at the state fairgrounds in Phoenix, the company said in a news release.
Similar scenes played out across the state as Banner ramps up to provide 1,000 vaccines daily just at the Phoenix fairgrounds site where Banner has been offering Covid-19 tests, the company said.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors ordered a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew for the county’s roughly 1 million residents. The move comes on the heels of a similar curfew passed by the Tucson City Council.
Pima County numbers appeared to back up Ducey’s claim that the virus is spreading mainly through private gatherings.
County contact tracing data showed that among 3,273 people traced, 858 (26%) reported having recently visited a bar or restaurant, and 502 (15%) had attended a gathering of more than 10 people — 54% at private parties, 28% at religious services, and 15% at events in bars or restaurants, the county reported.
You can track Arizona’s Covid-19 statistics through the Arizona Department of Health Services website.