PHOENIX — A record number of Arizonans are now hospitalized for COVID-19 as the state retains its dubious distinction as the place where the virus is spreading faster than anywhere else in the country.
Figures Wednesday by the Department of Health Services show 3,809 hospital beds are occupied by COVID patients. Even at its peak in July, that figure was 3,517.
The new report also shows 1,309 beds in emergency rooms with coronavirus cases, also a new record.
While the ICU-bed usage by COVID patients set no new records, just 155 beds remain available in the entire state.
All this comes on top of a statewide daily death count that now has reached 108, tying the previous one-day record. That brings the total to 7,530.
There also were another 4,848 new cases reported; the tally now is 429,219. That figure may be artificially low as it does not include people who are asymptomatic and do not get tested yet are capable of spreading the disease.
Also last week, close to one in five people who did get tested came up positive for the virus.
“And this week we are trending higher,” said state health chief Dr. Cara Christ.
All this comes as Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday toured a vaccination site being set up at the Arizona State Fairgrounds where the first inoculations were set to be administered later that day. Among the first to get a shot in the arm will be Dr. Christ.
The state’s own protocols call for the first vaccines to be given to health care workers. And while Dr. Christ is a medical doctor, she does not provide direct care to patients.
But Gov. Ducey said the decision to have her at the front of the line is based on the need to give Arizonans the confidence to roll up their own sleeves for a novel vaccine. That means getting the message from someone Arizonans trust — in this case, the health director who has been the public face of the fight on the virus, complete with TV public service announcements about COVID-19.
Dr. Christ herself acknowledged that need for public confidence — and even confidence of the medical community who individual patients rely on for advice — noting a survey done last month found 37% of health care professionals said they probably would not get inoculated.
Gov. Ducey himself said he is willing to get a shot of one of the vaccines that has been given “emergency use authorization” by the federal Food and Drug Administration. But he said there are only 380,000 doses in the first batch the state is receiving and he does not want to “jump the line.”
In the meantime, the governor repeated he will not impose new restrictions on businesses or public gatherings, or impose a statewide mandate for face masks, even in the face of record-setting levels of infection. He said it’s not necessary.
“Where most of the spread is happening and where the folks that are in some of these situations are because of the larger group gatherings that are happening in private settings,” Ducey said.
“And then folks that are at that category of age or vulnerability or comorbidity catch this virus,” he continued. “And they are filling our hospitals and our ICUs.”
More to the point, the governor said he’s not sure the state can do much about that.
“I don’t know what role you think the government can have in private home settings,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to educate the public on the best possible policies and protocols.”
Gov. Ducey has received multiple letters and requests from different groups asking that he take more substantial action. The most recent, on Wednesday, was from Democrat mayors and lawmakers along with doctors and nurses urging a statewide mask mandate.
“If Arizona’s leaders are refusing to acknowledge the severity of the pandemic by taking necessary mitigation measures, how can we expect everyone else to follow suit?” they asked.
“I am not ignoring anyone,” Gov. Ducey responded when asked about the various requests. “I am listening to everyone,” he continued, saying he is taking “the best counsel and advice and putting those steps forward.”
The governor also reacted angrily to questions about whether his failure to take action makes him in some way responsible for the number of deaths in Arizona.
“That is not true,” he said.
“It is the virus that is taking these lives,” he said. “The vaccine will save millions of lives going forward.”
Gov. Ducey also suggested there was some inconsistency in some of what he is being asked to do.
On one hand, he said, there are those who think there should be more restrictions on businesses. That, in turn, means throwing people out of work.
At the same time, the governor said he is being asked to extend a moratorium on residential evictions, one imposed by the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control that is set to expire at the end of the year.
That is likely to result in a spike of people who have not been able to pay rent being kicked out.
Gov. Ducey said the state does have some dollars available for rent relief.
“But the best way to keep people inside their homes or their apartments is to allow them to be safely and successfully employed so they can pay their rent or pay their mortgage,” he said.
The governor repeatedly sought to turn the focus of the media briefing back to his announcement about the first inoculations.
“We’re here today on a historic day, as I said, which is really a miracle of modern medicine, of our public health officials, of a private-public relationship, of an operation called Warp Speed that is delivering something that can put this behind us,” he said. And
Gov. Ducey sought to tamp down talk about how well — or how poorly — Arizona is faring among the rate the infection is being spread which, for the moment, is the highest in the nation.
“The real measure of success is vaccinations,” the governor said, and not only in the program’s logistical rollout.
“It’s also to build confidence in this vaccine, that it’s safe, that it’s effective, it will save lives and it will bring us back to a sense of normality in this state and in this country,” he said.