December is Arizona’s worst month for COVID so far




This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which causes COVID-19. Public domain image.

December is on track to be the deadliest and most infectious month for the coronavirus pandemic in Arizona as the state continues to outpace every previous milestone, with more than 35 percent of the state’s half million COVID-19 cases coming from this month alone, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

July saw 2,050 Arizonans lose their lives to the virus, while 2,006 people in the state have died due to COVID-19 so far in December.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 171 deaths on Tuesday, the highest single-day figure since the start of the pandemic, though the agency said 148 were due to the death certificate matching process, meaning some deaths that may have been originally attributed to other causes were later added after further investigation by public health officials who have been reviewing deaths across the state to ensure an accurate count

The previous high water mark was on July 17, when ADHS reported 103 deaths. 

December has also seen the deadliest week of the pandemic with 614 Arizonans losing their lives from the virus from Dec. 13-19. 

The state’s previous worst month had been July, when cases surged and hospitals became inundated with patients. The total number of cases recorded in July was 94,782, compared to 180,405 so far in December.

The number of COVID patients in intensive care units has also hit record highs this month, exceeding 1,000 on Monday, a first since the pandemic began. Over 60 percent of the state’s ICU beds are in use by COVID patients and currently only 10 percent staffed adult ICU beds, or 178, remain. 

The state has not had more than 10% of its ICU capacity available at any point in the month of December. On Tuesday, for the fourteenth time in the past 18 days, the state set another record for total hospitalizations due to COVID, with 4,562 COVID patients filling in-patient hospital beds. More than half of the in-patient beds in the state are in use by COVID patients and only 8% are available. 

As of Monday, over half a million Arizonans have contracted the virus and over 8,600 have died from it. Over 3.1 million tests have been administered and over the last week Arizona has averaged 6,182 new cases per day. 

Some Arizona hospitals have reported to media outlets that they’ve had to resort to putting two patients in rooms intended for one. In other states facing similar surges, elective surgeries are being put on hold, something nurses in Arizona have called for the governor to do via executive order. 

Six hospitals in the Phoenix area, which accounts for more than half the COVID patients in Arizona since the start of the pandemic, have begun diverting incoming emergency room traffic due to the number of COVID patients.

According to data from ADHS, all 15 counties in Arizona currently face “substantial spread” of the coronavirus, meaning they’ve exceeded benchmarks for cases per 100,000 people, percentage of all COVID tests that are positive, and hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses for at least two consecutive weeks.

Only two counties, Apache and Greenlee, saw  downward trends in their new case numbers between Nov. 15 and Dec. 13, the most recent date for which data is available from ADHS. New case numbers in the remaining counties have either increased or plateaued in recent weeks. 

In a recent video update, ADHS Director Cara Christ noted that older Arizonans are getting the virus less often than younger people, but are being hospitalized at a far higher rate. 

Arizonans between the ages of 20 and 44 make up almost 50% of all COVID cases and nearly a quarter of all hospitalizations. Despite only making up only roughly 10% of total cases, Arizonans aged 65 and older make up nearly 40% of hospitalizations and well over 60% of all deaths.

ADHS announced Tuesday that those 75 and older will be prioritized for the second phase of COVID vaccinations. 

A previous analysis of Health and Human Services data by the Arizona Mirror found that hospitals across the state are nearing capacity, and several hospitals have ICUs that are understaffed and full of COVID patients. 

Arizona reported a total of 5,267 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. There have been more than 512,000 cases of COVID-19 in Arizona and over 8,700 deaths as of Wednesday, according to ADHS

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.