Supervisors hear numbers, recommendations from County Health

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PHOENIX — It’s not as bad as it was — but things are still bad when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic.

That seemed to be the overall message Marcy Flanagan delivered to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors at a recent meeting. While the overall message from Flanagan, the director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and a doctor, delivered included some discouraging statistics, one message was that health care resources are in a better position now than a year and a half ago.

Tuesday, the county’s health department reported there have been more than 727,000 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020. The positive test rate is around 9%, and there have been about 190 cases per 100,000 residents in Maricopa County, which has a population of about 4.42 million.

“I don’t think any of us, at the beginning, thought we’d see a number like that in our community,” Flanagan said. “And, of course, the number of deaths from one illness is high as well.”

The county recently passed the 12,000 mark in total COVID-19 deaths.

Flanagan displayed a chart that showed the three waves of heavy new COVID-19 diagnosis. After a spike in July 2020, the highest numbers of daily new cases was in mid-January, followed by a sharp dropoff as many Arizonans received vaccines.

The third COVID-19 wave, which included the delta variant of the virus, brought in many new cases to Maricopa County and Arizona and peaked about Aug. 15. However, Flanagan pointed out, the number of cases has leveled off rather than dropping during the past two months.

“We’re seeing many new cases every day,” she said. “We’re not seeing the decline that would match the national trend.”

Flanagan said school, business and public place mask requirements, vaccination rates and other factors determine recovery rates.

Hospitalization capacities are close to or at maximum from a combination of COVID-19 delta variant cases, surgeries postponed from earlier in the pandemic and what Flanagan described as one of the worst West Nile virus years she’s experienced.

Education has been an important department task, not only on the importance of vaccination in general, but also age- and condition-specific CDC vaccination guidelines. For example, Flanagan said, there was a stretch when MCDPH staff noticed a rise in Maricopa County of pregnant women presenting with COVID-19 symptoms.

“There is absolutely no data that vaccines affect fertility, in any way, for males or females of any age,” said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for disease control at MCDPH. She joined Flanagan at the presentation.

Sunenshine said in August, 25% of new cases of COVID-19 were among patients younger than age 18. That number is still one in six in October, she said, but court-aided school district mask mandates appear to have helped bring that rate down.

A survey Sunenshine mentioned, conducted in July and August, showed only one-third of parents planned to vaccinate children ages 5 to 11.

Flanagan said there is much education to do in that area. Monday, Moderna announced its internal studies show it has a vaccine that is safe for the age group, and Tuesday, FDA advisers endorsed Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

Sunenshine pointed out that in August, not only did few schools and districts require children to wear masks, but also, schools reopened at full capacity, without hybrid in-person attendance or 6-foot distancing put in place during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

There were 80 pediatric hospitalizations in the county during September, Sunenshine said, and that rate went up even higher over the first two weeks of October.

There were three times as many outbreaks in August as during last winter’s COVID-19 wave.

“These outbreaks are not happening in all parts of the U.S.,” Sunenshine said.

Supervisor Clint Hickman asked if the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine is being administered in more of a traditional fashion, whereas the two-step Moderna and Pfizer formats are more modern. Sunenshine said that assertion is basically true.

Sunenshine said there is debate in epidemiology circles as to whether breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are because of waning six-month immunity or because of the strength and contagious nature of the delta variant.

She said she believes both are factors and vaccinating children ages 6 to 11 will make a big impact in reducing the number of new cases.

“For children, getting that first dose in, before the holidays, will make a huge difference, in Arizona and nationwide,” Sunenshine said.

Supervisor Bill Gates asked if there was data yet on breakthrough cases among children.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to track that immunity, for a while,” Sunenshine said.

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