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Health experts warn Arizona could face major crisis in the coming months

“The numbers across the country are terrible but nonetheless this is our home and we need to do something about it.”

PHOENIX — The Center for Disease Control is warning Americans to stay home during the holidays, after more than 250,000 people have died from COVID-19. In Arizona, the virus is surging. 

The Arizona Department of Public Health reported more than 4,100 new cases on Thursday, which is the highest number of cases in one day since mid-July.

Where was Governor Ducey? 

These sobering numbers come just a day after Gov. Doug Ducey held his first press conference in nearly three weeks with no announcement of a statewide mask mandate or new mitigations to slow the spread. 

The governor's indecision quickly garnered widespread criticism from community leaders for not doing enough. Modeling from both the ASU Biodesign Institute and the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health warn of dire days ahead if current COVID-19 trends remain constant. 

“The numbers across the country are terrible but none the less this is our home and we need to do something about it,” said Executive Director for ASU Biodesign Institute Dr. Joshua LaBaer.   

Since last week, Arizona hospitals have seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 patients. The graphs below show the numbers of patients in hospital beds climbing 32% with patients in ICU beds up 29% and patients on ventilators up 26% with researchers concerned they will soon become overwhelmed with new cases. 

“Right now 1 in 4 ICU beds is a COVID case. Roughly 1 in 5 beds in the hospital is a COVID case, those are big numbers and when any single illness occupies that big a fraction of anything that’s a concern,” said LaBaer.  

Credit: 12 News
Credit: 12 News
Credit: 12 News

“We do communication with our hospitals weekly, and there is certainly a concern if we continue with trends at this rate there will be staffing shortages,” said Maricopa County Director of Public Health Marcy Flanagan. 

“When our hospital systems become overwhelmed we will have to do additional efforts statewide to relieve the pressure." 

Maricopa County Public Health officials have seen a nearly 200% increase in the new weekly average of cases. Last month, the 7-day average was under 500 per week, that number now around 1,500. 

“The increases we’ve seen in new cases has been extreme," said Flanagan. 

The novel coronavirus' impact on Arizona, visualized. Stay up to date on the novel coronavirus in Arizona with continually updated graphs that provide insight and context on the pandemic in our state.

Governor's office, ADHS have known about surge for weeks

"There is no doubt the virus is spreading rapidly within our state and we are see exponential growth. Now is a good time, in fact, a couple weeks ago would have been a good time to make changes to limit the spread. We've been talking about being in a surge since the beginning of October," said LeBaer. 

On Wednesday, Ducey acknowledged the new surge and asked Arizonans to continue masking up, but that advice appears to be falling short. 

LeBaer believes now is the time to fall back to mitigations that worked to slow the spread of the virus in the summer.

“From my perspective I think we should be thinking very hard about what kinds of public policy measures we could institute right now that could limit the spread,” said LeBaer. 

"What we saw last simmer was the institution of a number of policies that clearly brought the cases down."

LeBaer says his team's modeling shows that if the state can reduce transmission of the virus by 15% Arizona can turn trends in the right direction. Last summer mitigations including pick-up and outdoor dining only, reduced capacity with gyms along with temporary closures of bars and nightclubs reduced transmission by 40% but a combination of relaxing policies and "Covid fatigue" have once again sparked new cases. 

“Given that we are now at the level we were last summer, this is probably the time to start implementing those policies again,” said LeBaer. 

The University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health warn of possible major crisis ahead if current COVID-19 trends remain constant. The report found that case counts continue to increase broadly among all age groups.

Credit: The Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health (MEZCOPH) at the University of Arizona

According to the report summary, "If this 'surge' is not quickly addressed, new COVID-19 cases will overwhelm our capacity to provide optimal hospital care within a matter of weeks." 

The report also called for mask-wearing ordinances for the foreseeable future and that large social gathering need to be avoided or new cases will quickly put a strain on hospitals. 

"Hospital occupancy is increasing due to COVID-19 transmission. Our current safety margin continues to erode and is close to reaching levels not seen since the summer outbreak." 

The report warned of the increasing surge leading to shortages in supplies and skilled personnel over time. 

The following information regarding the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona was prepared by Joe Gerald, MD, PhD, a researcher at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health (MEZCOPH) at the University of Arizona. This information has also been reviewed by other MEZCOPH faculty.

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