PHOENIX — While Maricopa County health officials were hoping for a leveling-off of new COVID-19 cases after many school districts began enforcing mask mandates, that leveling-off didn’t happen.
Marcy Flanagan, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, delivered a COVID-19 update to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors at a meeting held this week, with a heavy emphasis on the difference between what’s happening with the county’s vaccinated and unvaccinated populations,
Flanagan, along with MCDPH medical director for disease control Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, pointed out some spikes in recent county data.
Noting there is a lag to many COVID-19 trends, Flanagan said the rate of cases per 100,000 of the county’s 4.42 million residents jumped to 297 for the week of Oct. 31 to Nov. 6. It had been 251 the previous week.
Also, the positive test rate has returned to a previously established high of 13%. While the death rate appears to be declining slightly during the last two weeks of available data, the outlook for the unvaccinated population is decidedly darker.
“There’s a lot of community spread happening, nationwide,” she said.
Flanagan and Sunenshine mentioned several factors in the recent spike:
• Large “superspreader” events. While many venues, such as football and baseball stadiums, tend to be outdoors, as were the Nov. 6-7 Phoenix Pride Parade and other events, large numbers of people are still close together and use restrooms and other indoor facilities in these neighborhoods.
• Unvaccinated COVID-19 patients are 5.2 times more likely to require hospitalization than unvaccinated Maricopa County residents who contract the delta variant.
• The delta variant spreads from person to person more easily than the original COVID-19 virus.
• Spread is high nationwide, but Arizona’s 51% vaccination rate is below the U.S. percentage of 67%. Maricopa County has a considerably lower vaccination rate than other large metro areas, such as Los Angeles County.
• The spread of the delta variant in Europe, combined with fewer travel restrictions than existed at various points over the past 18 months, means COVID-19 is being transmitted in both directions between Americans and Europeans.
• Sunenshine said natural immunity is less than half as reliable as vaccination, especially when considering the delta variant.
• Maricopa County residents have become lax about other mitigation strategies, such as hand washing, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, using hand sanitizer, covering the mouth with an elbow if coughing or sneezing without a mask and mask use in general.
Flanagan said hospitals are not only struggling with bed use hovering near 90%, but also with staffing. She said Sunenshine meets regular with health care organization leaders about ongoing staffing problems.
She said she’s hopeful the high numbers of age 5 to 11 children being vaccinated statewide will help bring down COVID-19 numbers.
Flanagan said her department has held 28 events since Pfizer’s age 5 to 11 approved vaccine became available in the county. One facility vaccinated 4,000 children in one day as part of a special event and had 4,000 more children scheduled for vaccines the following week.
Supervisor Steve Gallardo said he has noticed how much some mitigation strategies have diminished, mentioning his recent venture into a department store where almost none of the customers wore masks.
Chair Jack Sellers reiterated his frequent thought that public health shouldn’t be a political issue.
Supervisor Clint Hickman thanked the Public Health staff for their hard work in combating both the virus and misinformation about it. He asked Sunenshine about the difference in effectiveness among the four major vaccines discussed in the U.S., made by Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.
“The CDC was recommending everyone who got the J&J to get a booster as far back as two months ago,” Sunenshine said. “Across the board, we have seen Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are generally considered a little less effective than the other two.”
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