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County Health to supervisors: More COVID spread, less death

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Less death, more cases. And plenty of use of hospitals — especially emergency and ICU resources.

Monday’s Maricopa County Department of Public Health presentation to the Board of Supervisors shed some optimistic light on a few areas in the region’s battle against COVID-19, but there are also many county statistics that show January 2022 to be among the darkest months of the nearly two-year pandemic.

Marcy Flanagan, the director of MCDPH, and Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the department’s medical director for disease control, pointed out some difficulties unique to omicron COVID-19 since the variant first surfaced in Arizona about two months ago.

Flanagan said there is hope the amount of positive COVID-19 tests in the county has peaked, but it’s tough to be sure using small sets of data. Since July, hospitalizations and positive tests have climbed consistently.

“There has been a slight dip in positive tests per day over the past week, but in epidemiology, we like to see something move in the same direction for at least two weeks before we call it a trend,” Flanagan told the board. “But we’re hopeful, knowing other states have had dips, then gone back up again.”

The county recently passed the 1 million mark in total positive tests since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. There have been more than 14,000 deaths in Maricopa County attributed to COVID-19.

More importantly, Flanagan said, the omicron variant moves much faster and across a deeper segment of the population than other forms of the coronavirus — even the delta variant.

The biggest spike Maricopa County previously was after the 2020-21 holiday break, when positive tests across the county were in the 7,500 range daily and there were about 3,700 people in county hospitals with COVID-19.

In the first weeks of January this year, the county has reported more than 15,000 positives per day and 2,400 COVID-19 patients are in county hospitals.

After more than a year of positive test percentage in the teens, the average for the county now is about 35%.

“That means one in three people who is taking a COVID-19 test in this county is testing positive,” Sunenshine said.

Maricopa County also has a much higher transmission rate per 100,000 people than the national average, up 13% in one week in January.

Tuesday, MCDPH reported almost 32,000 new COVID-19 cases for the Jan. 22-24 span, with 30 new deaths. That’s an average of almost 11,000 new cases and 10 new deaths per day.

“Also, bed availability is only at 6%,” Sunenshine said. “And unvaccinated people are 64.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those with vaccines, even if you haven’t got a booster yet. And you’re 19 times more likely to need hospitalization without a vaccine.”

Sunenshine said while the 2,400 people hospitalized is not as great as the spike after the 2020-21 holiday break, it’s significantly higher than it was during summer 2021. She attributes the less-serious nature of the omicron variant and the growing vaccination rate.

“We’re seeing a much higher number of people infected, but it’s not doing quite as much damage to people,” she said.

Flanagan said vaccines offer protection against severe illness.
The omicron variant now accounts for 96% of all county cases. Vaccines, plus boosters, are 75% effective in blocking omicron COVID-19 infection in the county for a four-month duration, Sunenshine said, although vaccines offered a 93% protection against the delta variant.

Sunenshine pointed out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer recommends the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its low efficacy. A booster can come from either Moderna or Pfizer.

While many deaths tend to happen in January, the benefits to vaccination are real in terms of lowering risk, Sunenshine said, while producing a list of 50 studies showing masks help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Flanagan extensively thanked many county departments and agencies with helping facilitate policies, services and response to the pandemic. The medical reserve corps has logged more than 128,000 volunteer hours as well.
Supervisor and board chair Bill Gates pointed out it would be tough to gauge how many lives have been saved and how much long-haul COVID-19 illness has been prevented by county residents following pandemic guidelines.

Supervisor Thomas Galvin encouraged all county residents to get vaccinated and boosted.

Supervisor Steve Gallardo asked Sunenshine how to spot high-quality versus low-quality masks, with the doctor encouraging the public to look for National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, approval stamps on masks. She also said a snug fit and a list of approved masks on a page on fda.gov are helpful guidelines as well.

Gallardo said the 64.3 times death rate for unvaccinated, compared with the vaccinated, is a powerful statistic MCDPH should continue to push to the public.

Supervisor Clint Hickman said going to the funeral of a COVID-19 patient, a man younger than him, resonated. He encouraged continuous vigorous and detailed documentation and for MCDPH to keep reporting where medical supply inventories should be.

“The Vietnam War cost us 58,000 American soldiers, as a whole country,” Hickman said. “There are 14,000 deaths in this county alone. Some say if they were older, they were gonna die anyway, but COVID cost them a day or a week with their families, and led to difficult medical examiner policy and protocol decisions. We need to use this knowledge, even if we can’t make a full, useful pandemic playbook with it.”

Hickman also thanked business owners who made various types of pandemic donations.

Flanagan said more volunteers are always needed. American Rescue Plan Act funds are being used to educate and train new nurses and other medical staff.

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