This Week in COVID: 542 Arizonans on Ventilators, Ducey Ignores Expert Guidance

It’s Tuesday, December 15. More than 420,000 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 7,350 have died as a result. Here’s what happened in the last week:

More than 7,770 new people are infected by COVID-19 in Arizona on average each day. This is the fastest and most broadly the virus has spread at any point since the pandemic began. More than twice as many people are infected every day as during the worst part of the outbreak over the summer.

More people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Arizona than at any point before. Over 3,600 people are hospitalized and less than 9 percent of beds are available statewide. The number of intensive-care patients with COVID-19 has not yet surpassed last summer but continues to rise. Between COVID-19 and other intensive-care patients, only 9 percent of intensive-care beds are available statewide — the same proportion as at the worst part of the summer. Of those COVID-19 patients, 542 are on ventilators. Around half the state’s supply of the life-support devices remains in play.

The state’s largest hospital network expects to hit capacity today. Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer at Banner Health, told the press last Wednesday that the network is treating around half the COVID-19 patients in the state and expects to reach 125 percent capacity as of this coming Friday. The hospitals have hired over 2,000 supplemental workers, but more than 400 open positions remain.

“We expect to get significantly strained in the health care system, which will mean more difficulty taking care of these very ill COVID patients, as well as more difficulty caring for other individuals who have heart attacks, strokes, infections, and the like,” Bessel said. “So please, everybody, do your part. Help us keep the health care system in the best possible shape that we can as we go into this significant surge.”

One in every 1,000 Arizonans has died as a result of COVID-19. Death rates have been lower in this outbreak than over the summer — in part due to a greater proportion of young people being infected this time around — but are considered a lagging indicator, meaning they are certain to continue to increase as COVID-19 cases do.

Governor Doug Ducey has ignored calls from a variety of experts and local leaders to implement more mitigation measures. Dr. Bessel was one of a group of medical leaders who called on Ducey to implement additional measures. Public health experts at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona have called for the same. Ducey has cited his concerns about the economic impacts of further lockdowns and said he is taking his cues from other experts.

However, even the group Ducey claims to be listening to recommends stronger mitigation measures. At the press conference two weeks ago in which he defended not implementing further mitigation measures, Ducey said he was following the advice of the White House COVID-19 task force. However, that task force issued a report three days before the press conference calling for “aggressive” mitigation measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, such as a “significant reduction” in “public and private indoor spaces, including bars and restaurants.”

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Meanwhile, businesses that would be closed under the summer’s mitigation orders remain open. Bars doing dine-in service, movie theaters, gyms, and some other congregate settings were not allowed to open until their counties dropped below “substantial” levels of COVID-19 infections. Three counties are at that “substantial” level, but those type of businesses remain open.

The first doses of the vaccine arrived in Arizona Monday, but it will be a long time before it makes a difference. Experts expect it will take until fall for vaccinations to be widespread. Frontline healthcare workers will be the first recipients. Here’s how the vaccine will be distributed and who will get priority.

A Yuma emergency room doctor was fired after putting out messages on social media to raise awareness about the impact of COVID-19. Cleavon Gilman has received recognition, including a call from President-elect Joe Biden, for speaking out about the stress medical workers are feeling and highlighting on Twitter the death toll of COVID-19. Last Thursday, Yuma Regional Medical Center asked him not to return to work as a result, the Arizona Republic reported. After an outcry, the two sides reconciled and Oprah is gifting Gilman a vacation after the pandemic.

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