How do this winter’s COVID numbers compare with last winter’s toll in Arizona? 

New surge fills ICU beds again, but there are important differences from 2020

By: - December 20, 2021 2:59 pm

A COVID-19 rapid antigen test. Photo by dronepicr | Wikimedia/CC BY 2.0

As Arizonans prepare for the holidays, hospitals are surging with COVID-19 cases in a fashion similar to what was seen at the end of 2020, but how similar is the 2021 surge to the surge the state saw in 2020?

In early November of 2020, the state began seeing a surge of COVID cases that led to intensive care unit beds as well as in-patient beds becoming increasingly scarce. By mid-December of 2020, only about 9% of all ICU beds in the state were available.

This December, by around the same time, only 5% of all the state’s ICU beds remain available, however, a smaller percentage of those beds are currently being used by COVID patients than during the previous surge.

Currently, over 600 of the state’s ICU beds, or roughly 41%, are in use by COVID patients, compared to more than 800 around the same time last December, which amounted to half the state’s capacity.

Clearly, more non-COVID patients are occupying ICU beds this year. Many adults delayed medical care during the pandemic; one study found that 1 in 5 adults delayed medical care and during the height of the pandemic last year, many cancer and organ transplant surgeries were put off entirely.

Emergency department beds are seeing record numbers of confirmed or suspected COVID cases in Arizona. During this time in 2020, around 55% of the state’s ER beds, or around 1,200, were in use by COVID or suspected COVID patients. This year, the number has continued to grow since August, up to more than 60% at times.

It reached its highest point this month, when three quarters of the state’s emergency department beds were in use by COVID patients.

Over the past week, Arizona has averaged 2,945 new cases every day and approximately 68.4 deaths. Over the past 30 days, the state has reported more than 103,000 cases of COVID and more than 1,600 new deaths from the virus, according to data compiled by John Hopkins University.

January, following Arizona’s November-to-December winter surge in 2020, still holds the record for the highest number of cases and deaths for the state, with more than 238,000 Arizonans contracting the virus and more than 4,200 losing their lives. An independent analysis found COVID to be the leading cause of death in the state in 2020.

An analysis of more than 120,000 hospitalizations over a four month period this year found that the majority of those hospitalized were unvaccinated and those who had been vaccinated who had breakthrough infections were mostly elderly individuals who had other complications. Still, fewer vaccinated individuals required interventions such as ventilators or experienced respiratory failure, unlike their unvaccinated counterparts.

Additionally, a report released by the Arizona Department of Health Services found that in October, unvaccinated individuals were 3.9 times more likely to contract COVID and 15.2 times more likely to die from the virus.

The vast majority of Arizona’s elderly population is vaccinated against the virus and Arizona’s vaccination rate sits currently at 58% of the state being fully vaccinated, putting the state in 29th place for it’s vaccination rate by population.

Anyone seeking a vaccination can find vaccine information online for Maricopa County here and statewide here.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
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.