Arizona has one of highest COVID-19 death rates in US

Fatalities fueled by winter surge


Over the course of the past 18 months, Arizona has amassed one of the highest COVID-19 fatality rates in the country.

As of Friday, the U.S. has counted more than 670,000 deaths since the first American death was reported in early 2020, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Just 54.86% of the country’s population has been vaccinated. Arizona has reported 19,379 deaths from the virus overall, with 19 more added to the tally on Friday. The state’s vaccination rate is a little higher than the country’s at 57.1%.

According to Johns Hopkins, Arizona is in the top 10 of states with the highest death rates for every 100,000 residents, with a rate of 261 per 100,000. Arizona is behind New Jersey, Mississippi, New York, Louisiana and Massachusetts. It’s only ahead of Rhode Island, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Even though COVID-19 is still swirling around the community, with a lot of help from the delta variant, Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association, said the bulk of Arizona’s COVID fatalities came in the winter of 2020 and were likely preventable.

“We just got totally out of control in December and January and it didn’t have to be that way,” he said. “We had just tons of cases and lots of deaths, so it wasn’t because the hospital system was doing a bad job at treating people. It was because we had so many cases and the hospitals were just overwhelmed and didn’t have the staffing to deal with it.”

Humble said the pandemic has come in four different waves: the first came at the beginning of March and April 2020 when the state shut down, an order he called “well-crafted.”

It was lifted without mitigation measures in May 2020, leading to a second summer surge. Gov. Doug Ducey responded by closing bars and nightclubs for a time, alleviating the crowded hospitals and community spread by August.

Humble said those businesses were allowed to reopen without much mitigation enforcement, leading to a third wave in November and December. Even with the vaccine widely available, we’re now in a fourth wave spurred by the easily transmissible delta variant, he said.

Humble said a lack of mitigation efforts following the first wave is a huge factor in Arizona’s high fatality rate.

“By and large there was no enforcement and then what that led to was just throwing gas on the fire over the winter,” he said. “If you look at the one critical control point for the whole pandemic as to why we’re [high] in the nation in deaths, it’s because they didn’t do any mitigation at all in November, December and January, and into the first part of February. Two-thirds of deaths were preventable.”

Humble conceded Arizona’s large number of senior citizens, who flock to the state in the winter months, likely didn’t help; older people are more vulnerable to the virus and more likely to die when infected. But Arizona’s fatality rate is still one of the worst in the nation when age is removed from the equation, he said.

And it’s reflected in hospital data as well.

“The mortality rate of COVID-19 disease patients within the hospital has been steady throughout the pandemic at approximately 11% of the admissions,” said Dr. Michael White, chief medical officer for Valleywise Health in Phoenix, though he said mortality is a lagging indicator of the pandemic’s reach.

“As more people test positive and become infected, especially those that have not been vaccinated, the risk of death will increase,” he said.

“When we saw our initial surges, [the] vaccine was not available, and those that had higher risk including the elderly, patients with multiple medical problems, were at a greater risk of death.”

Now, according to Dr. White, mortality is predominantly among the unvaccinated.

David Lozano, a Banner Health spokesperson, said Banner has cared for more than half the state’s COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic. He said Arizona’s death rate is high due to limited mitigation and low vaccination rates.

“Rates are high in the state because of limited mitigation throughout the pandemic and low vaccination rates compared to other states,” said Lozano. “The low vaccination rate is very concerning. We strongly recommend all unvaccinated individuals who are age-eligible, to get vaccinated. We recommend masking when in school and indoors.”

Banner Health’s leaders concurred, also stating Arizona’s been riding the same waves as other states when it comes to COVID-19 mortality.

“Our mortality rates that we are experiencing for those patients that are hospitalized with COVID are in alignment with what the mortality rate of other hospitalized patients are across the country,” said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the health system’s chief clinical officer, during a Sept. 8 news briefing. “One caveat that we all have to take a look at when we are trying to compare mortality rates from one part of the country to the other is making sure that we understand the nuances of when the peak was, because we know that death from COVID is more of a lagging indicator, versus percent positivity and hospitalization rates. We certainly mourn every single individual who has died from COVID and wish all of you would go out there and get vaccinated.”