Omicron and no mitigation: COVID-19 cases rocket to record highs in Arizona

By: - January 10, 2022 4:14 pm

Photo by michael_swan | CC BY-ND 2.0

The omicron-fueled spike in COVID-19 in Arizona is reaching record highs at a pace much faster than last year’s winter surge, as hospitals across the state and around the nation begin to feel the strain of record-breaking caseloads. 

On Monday, Arizona reported 13,937 cases of COVID-19. And in the week ending Jan. 8, Arizona reported a total of 71,224 new cases, a record high for the pandemic, according to data collected by John Hopkins University

In 12 days, Arizona went from approximately 36 cases per 100,000 people reported a day to 141 cases per 100,000 people. It took 53 days during the first winter surge to reach the same number of cases per day. 

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The recent weekly average of new cases reported per day has been 10,275. That’s just a hair less than the highest seven-day average of last winter’s surge, which peaked at 10,391 cases per day. But more concerning for public health experts is that there is no sign caseloads will drop in the immediate future. 

“It reflects how incredibly contagious omicron is and how nonexistent mitigation is in this state,” Arizona Public Health Association Executive Director Will Humble told the Arizona Mirror

The highly contagious omicron variant has been making its way through the state since late last year. It is 2.7 to 3.7 times more infectious than the delta variant that swept the nation last year.  

“A fair number of the infections that you are seeing on the reports these days are break-through cases,” Humble said of the high daily reports released by ADHS and others of COVID numbers. 

Omicron has been known to more easily infect those who have had the vaccine due to its ability to circumvent immune system defenses, according to one study by Danish researchers. But the vaccine is playing a role in why omicron is causing fewer hospitalizations and is less severe than the delta variant that it replaced

“It actually reproduces in the upper respiratory tract very quickly, as opposed to the lower respiratory tract,” Dr. Shad Marvasti, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and physician who has specialized in chronic diseases, said to the Mirror

Should it be a personal choice to drink and drive? It shouldn’t be a choice to wear a high-quality mask in an indoor public setting.

– Dr. Shad Marvasti, University of Arizona

This means that those infected with Omicron are more likely to have symptoms that occur in their nose and throat, as opposed to their lungs and chest, where delta and other earlier variants attacked. 

Because omicron targets the upper respiratory system, it spreads easier, Marvasti said. It also makes mitigation efforts like masking more important. 

“Masking is even more critical than ever,” Marvasti said. “What we should do is enact the defense production act to get masks to everyone.” 

But not just any mask, according to both Marvasti and Humble. 

“Just a regular cloth mask is adequate if everyone is wearing the mask,” Humble said. 

But not everyone in the state is

“Get rid of your regular cloth mask, order N95, KN95 or KF94 and have a tight fitting mask and make sure you have it on before you go into a public space and make sure you are boosted,” Humble said. “Wherever you go right now there is virus in the air.”

Marvasti agreed with Humble’s sentiment and said smart public policy would require mask use in indoor public spaces. 

“Should it be a personal choice to drink and drive?” Marvasti said. “It shouldn’t be a choice to wear a high-quality mask in an indoor public setting.” 

As Arizona’s COVID-19 numbers continue to rise, state health officials are continuing to push for Arizonans to get the free and safe vaccine, which has been shown to prevent deadly outcomes for those who get the infection in the state. However, when asked by the Mirror about further policies to prevent the spread, the Arizona Department of Health Services said any new policies are in the “domain of policymakers.” 

“Public health’s role is recommending individual decisions in the interest of the individual and common good,” ADHS spokesman Steve Elliot said in an email to the Mirror. “Our recommendation is to continue making the healthy choice to get vaccinated and boosted, mask up, physically distance and take other steps proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Whether or not to mandate is the domain of policymakers.”

Marvasti said that advice isn’t good enough to keep Arizonans safe.

“We can’t pick and choose, you can’t say I’m going to take vitamin D and not get vaccinated,” Marvasti said about what all we need to do to stop the spread. “These are the false dichotomies that are dictated by politics and misinformation. No amount of handwashing is going to make up for not wearing a high quality mask.” 

Both Marvasti and Humble said they believe large-scale events should be put on hold. 

“The way I see it is omicron is super contagious, so you want to create as much of a headwind as you can for the virus,” Humble said. 

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.

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