With COVID-19 cases on the rise in the county and across the country, Pima County public health officials are reminding everyone to keep safety in mind during the holiday season.
During a press briefing Tuesday, Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said it’s important people are aware of how COVID is impacting the community and the hospital system.
Pima County is seeing a more than 15 percent positivity rate, with more than 400 cases per 100,000 individuals in the last week, according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker. A community is considered to have a high transmission level when new cases reach more than 100 per 100,000 individuals.
Nearly half of all ventilators and 29 percent of ICU beds in the county are currently occupied by COVID patients – the highest numbers Pima County has seen since early February, Cullen said.
“We do have enough ventilators in the county, we have a backup stock if we need them, but this is a significant number,” she said. “Just because we have ventilators available in a warehouse does not mean that we either have a place to send them or we have staff trained to support them.”
Cullen said she does expect cases to continue to increase “for the next period of time” and worried about the impact it will have on the hospital system.
“I believe we are looking at getting into a crisis situation,” she said. “Our hospitals are amazing and they are doing the best they can do, but what we do know is that there will be an impact on them as we move forward if we see any additional increase in the impact of COVID and hospitalization.”
Ahead of the holiday weekend, Cullen pointed to the importance of layered mitigation efforts – like mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing – to limit the spread of new infections.
“We are strongly, strongly recommending that people wear a mask in any public, indoor space. This would include Thanksgiving dinner and Thanksgiving festivities if you are going with people who are unknown to you and you don’t know their vaccination status,” Cullen said.
If choosing to gather in-person, Brain Eller, who serves as a COVID-19 school liaison for the Pima County Health Department, said ensuring the space is well-ventilated or moving the party outside can be a good step.
“Maybe consider hosting an outdoor holiday gathering to experience the Tucson weather that we’re so grateful to have here,” Eller said during a press conference last week.
If you have symptoms of COVID, or are experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness, health officials recommend staying home and avoiding large gatherings altogether. If you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID, it’s a good idea to get tested yourself ahead of the big event.
The Pima County Health Department and its partners operate a number of testing locations throughout the county where individuals can get tested for free. For a full list of locations, hours and eligibility criteria, visit pima.gov/covid19.
If you test positive, health officials recommend reporting your results to your local health department, following isolation protocols and contacting your doctor to find out if you qualify for monoclonal antibody treatment.
Those considering traveling for the holidays or gathering with people from multiple households should monitor themselves for symptoms and consider taking a test in advance of gathering to further reduce risk. The CDC continues to recommend delaying travel until you are fully vaccinated.
If you are planning on braving crowds for doorbuster deals, Cullen also recommends taking extra precautions when it comes to things like mask wearing and hand washing to protect yourselves and your loved ones.
“Have a little bottle of hand sanitizer with you, especially if you are in crowded places, and make sure you use that liberally to decrease your ability to transmit or get COVID. Remember, COVID is a respiratory disease, but it’s easy to touch your face and then touch others with that,” Cullen said.
Above all, officials emphasize that vaccines are the main source of protection, and continue to be the best defense against COVID-19.
Everyone who is not yet vaccinated and is eligible to get one is encouraged to do so now in an effort to further shore up their immunity in time for Christmas.
Those eligible for a COVID-19 booster dose – which as of Nov. 19 includes all adults who completed their Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine series at least six months ago or who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago – should also get boosted, Cullen said.
“If we get people boosted, we can decrease the number of people who get infected and we can decrease the transmission in our community,” she said.
In addition to increasing COVID cases, health experts are also anticipating that more holiday gatherings and events this year will mean a more severe flu season.
Last year, with lots of people wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands, the 2020-21 flu season was almost non-existent, reaching 1,196 confirmed cases across the state according to the Arizona Department of Health Service’s online dashboard.
Compare that to the 2019-20 flu season, which saw more than 36,000 confirmed cases in Arizona, or the state's five-season average, which is around 26,400 influenza cases per year.
“We have already seen more flu infections than last year when we saw closer to zero,” said Kerry Noble, CEO of Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital. “We are trying to encourage people to get the flu vaccine because I think this year we will have a more normal flu season.”
Since the 2021-22 flu season began in October, there have been 129 confirmed cases in Arizona, according to ADHS.
Though the numbers are low now, the American Medical Association expects as many as 41 million Americans to become infected with the flu and over 700,000 to be hospitalized because of it this season.
Like last year, concerns about the recent surge in COVID cases and its impact on hospital beds and resources remain.
“We are at high, high, high transmission at the current time, and we don’t have a sense in this wave where we’re going to stop,” Cullen said during a press conference last week.
“As we enter into the winter months, where we would normally expect to see increased occupancy in our hospitals, once again, the encouragement is to be able to keep people out of hospitals which means vaccinate and mask when appropriate,” she said.
According to the CDC, the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine can be given during the same visit.