The new year brings a new surge of COVID-19, this time driven by the Omicron variant which researchers regard somewhat optimistically. Even still, schools are gearing up for a staff shortage as the governor and school administrators vow there won’t be school closures. Additionally, the Arizona Department of Health Services released a study on COVID-19 cases and deaths last year that definitively demonstrates that vaccination prevents severe illness and death.
For 2021, COVID-19 may be the leading cause of death in Arizona. While official mortality numbers will not be available until later in the year, COVID-19 is responsible for nearly 16,000 deaths in 2021. According to Cronkite News, the official counts for cancers and heart disease, which have each killed around 12,000 people per year except for 2020 when the heart disease was the listed cause of death for 14,185 Arizonans.
ADHS also illuminates the stark dichotomy in rates of death from complications related to COVID-19 in a new report on COVID-19 outcomes as they relate to vaccination status. The ADHS report shows that in November, individuals who were not vaccinated were 31.1 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and five times more likely to get the disease than someone who was fully vaccinated. According to ADHS interim director Don Herrington’s blog, this was up from October when the unvaccinated were only 15.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19 and three times more likely to test positive for the illness.
The Omicron variant is highly contagious but is also characterized by lessened symptoms, but the risk of complications or death related to the virus are still elevated, according to Arizona Public Health Association (AzPHA) executive director Will Humble. Humble told KTAR that hospitalizations are even expected to rise due simply to the number of people becoming infected:
It’s all about the denominator. Lot’s of new cases coming in, and even if a smaller percentage of them end up needing hospitalization, it’s still going to send more people to the hospital, at least in January and the first part of February.
Humble also told 12News that he doesn’t believe that the end result will have quite as many deaths and hospitalizations overall as the winter spike that lasted from December 2020 into early February 2021. Both the vaccine and the lessened symptoms associated with the Omicron variant will be responsible for this, Humble notes.
10,000 cases today will not have the same public impact as 10,000 cases a year ago.
Since Christmas, Arizona has recorded an additional 38,000 cases and 400 deaths. Dr. Joe Gerald, University of Arizona Associate Professor and researcher told 12News that the Delta variant hasn’t disappeared, and the combination of the variants has the potential to “rapidly escalate.”
January is going to be the month we are talking about a lot of cases. The Delay poses the greatest risk because it compromises all of our access to critical care needs whether it’s because of COVID, or heart disease or cancer.
Dr. Gerald told Tucson.com that part of the difficulty in predicting outcomes is streamlining and ensuring the accuracy of testing.
It’s always difficult this time of year to get consistent and reliable testing data. So we don’t really have a good idea of what’s going on.
Last Friday, an additional 7,720 cases were recorded — more than twice the state’s latest seven-day rolling average of daily new cases. The rate of test positivity has also risen dramatically. Pima County Health Department Director Dt. Theresa Cullen noted that on January 3, one site had 30% of tests return positive.
The Mohave County Board of Supervisors voted 3 to 2 on Monday in favor of a resolution recognizing staffing shortages in county hospitals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Mohave Valley Daily News, the reasons listed included COVID-19 admitted patients requiring longer days, a decline in workforce due to burnout and better staffing positions elsewhere, limited resources to replace or receive staff and the inability for Mohave County hospitals to move patients to Nevada hospitals or within Arizona.
Mayo Clinic is enforcing specific guidelines to combat spread within its hospitals. According to Modern Healthcare, all patients and visitors entering any Mayo Clinic location must wear surgical masks, despite studies endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that demonstrate the effectiveness of multi-layer cloth masks. From the Mayo Clinic statement:
Single-layer cloth masks, neck gaiters and bandanas are commonly worn, for example, and do not provide optimal protection to help ensure the health and safety of all.
Mayo Clinic also terminated the employment of 700 workers on Wednesday. Workers had been given until Monday, January 3, to get vaccinated or obtain a religious or medical exemption to the rule. The number of terminated employees accounts for approximately 1% of the Clinic’s total staff and includes personnel from all locations, according to NBCNews.
On Monday, Governor Doug Ducey tweeted without prompting that he would work to keep schools open during the winter COVID-19 surge, and accused teacher’s unions of undermining that goal.
The governor followed up with a press release on Tuesday stating that “in-person learning will continue,” and announcing the Open for Learning Recovery Benefit program in which aggrieved parents who object to remote learning or other COVID-19 mitigation procedures in schools may apply to the state for a $7,000 voucher.
This $10 million program is similar to a previous program in which parents could apply for $7,000 waivers if they opposed mask mandates in the public school their child attended. Those vouchers are funded by the CARES Act of 2020. The U.S. Department of Treasury has instructed the governor to dissolve the program as it does not fit within the specified uses of CARES Act funds, but he has yet to do so. According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the governor is deflecting from calling this a handout. From gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin:
It’s that parents have options.
AZFamily‘s go-to emergency department doctor, Dr. Frank LoVecchio said that schools ought to prepare for some type of hybrid-model learning.
Don’t be surprised when kids are calling in sick and need at-home assignments.
But schools are already vowing to stay open throughout the winter surge. According to AZCentral, Madison school Superintendent Kenneth R. Baca expressed a strong opposition to remote or hybrid learning:
Our planning DOES NOT include returning the entire district to remote or hybrid learning. However, it does mean that we will have to plan for classrooms that are not covered, bus routes that may be delayed or canceled, and food services that may have challenges serving meals — all due to staff illness.
Researchers at the University of Arizona Health Sciences analyzed data from the Arizona Healthcare, Emergency Response and Other Essential Workers Surveillance (AZ HEROES) and found that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 92% effective at preventing COVID-19 in children between the ages of 12 and 17. From Karen Lutrick, PhD, AZ HEROES co-investigator:
The AZ HEROES study is providing continually updated results on where we are with COVID-19. There’s almost always going to be a new variant. We’re going to measure it, know when it’s here, and understand how it’s impacting our community.