A year after Arizona’s first surge of COVID-19 cases, the state is seeing some of the lowest numbers of cases it has since the start of the pandemic, though hospital intensive care units still remain filled at similar levels to a year ago.
The first case of COVID was announced in Arizona on Jan. 26, 2020, and was a 20-year-old ASU student who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China. It wouldn’t be until June 1, 2020 — a couple of weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey lifted the state’s initial restrictions — that the number of cases reported per day would reach in the thousands, where it would stay until August.
On June 1, 2021, the number of cases reported was 453, a nearly 62% decrease from the previous year.
In early June 2020, it had been two weeks since the stay-at-home order had expired and cases began surging along with hospitalizations. Before cases of COVID began surging, more than a quarter of the state’s intensive care unit hospital beds were available. But by the end of the month, that number would dip to just 11%.
Except for a short period in September 2020, more than three in four ICU beds in Arizona have been filled over the past year. After Arizona’s second — and worse — surge of cases ended in late February, the ICU vacancy rate has hovered around 14%, despite COVID cases only making up 9% of all ICU beds used currently, compared to during the surges when COVID cases would make up nearly half or more than half of all ICU beds in use.
“What we know is when people delay care that have significant issues, they may need more significant care,” Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said when the Arizona Mirror asked her about Arizona’s ICU bed capacity.
Christ said her agency’s prevailing theory is that many with underlying health issues delayed care during the pandemic and are now seeking medical attention as cases diminish.
“All of that now is being caught up now,” Christ said, adding that the agency didn’t collect data on ICU capacity prior to the pandemic, so it is unknown what constitutes “normal capacity” for Arizona’s hospitals.
The start of 2021 saw dramatic COVID numbers as the state was still reeling from a surge in cases that began in November. But more than five months into the year, with nearly 47% of Arizona residents having received at least one COVID vaccine shot, cases have sharply fallen.
“We’ve seen a significant decrease since the beginning of January,” Christ said to reporters Friday. January broke all sorts of records for COVID in the state, with over 238,000 cases reported that month as well as more than 4,200 deaths reported.
During the past week in Arizona, there have been 3,589 cases of COVID reported along with 59 deaths. This time last June, there were 7,980 reported cases and 158 deaths, a decrease of over 50%.
Arizona’s positivity for COVID is also seeing a downward trend, as about only 4% of all COVID tests conducted in the state are positive, the lowest it has been since the state had a dip in cases in September.
With the decrease in case numbers and a decrease in the number of people interested in the COVID vaccines, Christ said the health department is moving more towards community outreach and “pop-up clinics” to aim for the July 4 70% vaccinated goal set by President Joe Biden.
“We’re seeing a significant decline in vaccines administered,” Christ said about the COVID vaccine. Christ said she was hopeful the state could still meet the July 4 deadline, but some estimates have shown that Arizona won’t reach 70% until later in the summer.
Arizona has a reputation for being vaccine hesitant, with some health officials going as far as labeling the state an anti-vaccine hot spot. State law requires children to be vaccinated to attend school, but parents are able to opt out — and many do.
Christ stated in the Friday press conference that the best way to continue to keep Arizona’s numbers low, hospitals safe and to prevent another June surge is for Arizonans to get vaccinated.
Arizonans looking to get vaccinated at a state-run site will have to do so this Friday or Saturday, since the state will be closing them by June 28 in favor of pop-up clinics and other forms of community outreach. Those looking to schedule an appointment at one of those sites can find more information here.