ARIZONA — It’s official.
COVID-19 is now “widespread” in Arizona, with 508 diagnosed cases and eight deaths, according to the State Department of Health Resources on Thursday.
Navajo County, at 43, has the third highest cluster of cases statewide. Apache County now has nine confirmed cases.
“Given widespread transmission, all Arizonans should expect that COVID-19 is circulating in their community,” said Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director.
Cases in the state have been increasing by at least 100 per day for the past several days, although reported deaths are rising more slowly. Health officials warn the actual number of cases is probably much higher, given the tight restrictions on who can get tested. Some 80 percent of those infected have only mild symptoms, according to most studies. Other studies suggest people can pass the virus along for several days before they show any symptoms at all.
Some 300 cases and three deaths have been reported in Maricopa County. Pima County has 75 cases, Pinal County has 35 and Coconino had 28 as of Thursday morning. A total of eight deaths have now been attributed to COVID-19 in Arizona.
Most of the Navajo County cases connect to a cluster on the Navajo Nation, which has issued a “shelter in place order.” Health investigators say many of those cases are connected to a church revival meeting several weeks ago. However, at least one case has been confirmed outside of the reservation in Navajo County.
Arizona Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ in a joint press conference with Gov. Doug Ducey predicted that cases will likely peak in mid-April, with the crush for hospitals coming in May.
Some 6,600 Arizona residents have so far been tested for the virus, with about 5 percent of the tests coming back positive.
Nationally as of Thursday, some 70,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus, with 1,000 deaths. That’s still fewer than the estimated 23,000 to 59,000 flu death so far this season, but flu cases are tapering off while COVID-19 cases are still increasing exponentially.
Computer simulations show that Arizona could need an additional 13,000 hospital beds and an added 1,500 intensive care beds to cope with the anticipated surge in cases, given the present rate of increase. Currently, the state has 16,000 hospital beds and 1,500 ICU beds.
“We believe the peak of our illnesses will start mid- to late-April, with peak hospitalizations in May. That is what we’re trying to get ahead of,” said Dr. Christ.
The state, the Army Corps of Engineers and private hospitals are working to identify places doctors and nurses could treat the overflow of patients – including closed hospitals and large venues like convention centers. The state has asked the federal government to open three field hospitals relying on tents with hospital beds inside, two in Phoenix and one in Tucson.
Rural areas will likely face an even more critical shortage of hospital beds and services.
Navajo County has114 hospital beds, or .001 beds per resident – with 17 percent of the population older than 65. Apache County has 45 beds, or .004 beds per resident – with 15 percent of the population older than 65, according to an online database compiled by High Country News
By contrast, Maricopa County has 8,100 hospital beds, which works out to .002 beds per resident – twice the per-capita supply of Navajo.
Arizona already ranks poorly when it comes to hospital beds, doctors and other medical services, according to a state-by-state survey by Kaiser Family Foundation. Arizona ranks 9th worst when it comes to per-capital hospital beds and 12th worst in the supply of doctors. The supply of hospital beds actually decreased by 5 percent between 2014 and 2018.
The shortage of hospital beds, nurses, doctors, respirators and even gloves, masks and gowns for health workers has largely driven the urgent pleas of health officials for people to stay home and practice social distancing as much as possible. The lack of crowds and close contact may not stop the spread of the virus entirely, but it will slow transmission. If those 13,000 extra hospitalizations hit all at once, the system will go down – forcing doctors to triage respirators and other necessary supportive care.
“We must continue to increase our bed capacity,” said Dr. Christ. “With a potential surge of COVID-19 patients, we expect it to be above and beyond our current capacity.”
In the meantime, she urged resident to do everything they can to limit their exposure.
“Given widespread transmission, all Arizonans should expect that COVID-19 is circulating in their community,” said Dr. Christ. “COVID-19 is a serious disease that is highly contagious and can be fatal in anyone, especially our elderly population and people with underlying health conditions. Protecting those at highest risk of complications and ensuring that our healthcare system is prepared to deal with a surge in cases is our highest priority. It is imperative that everyone takes precautions to protect themselves and their family from this disease.”
The best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19:
● Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not
available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
● Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
● Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
● Stay home when you are sick.
● Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then immediately throw the tissue in the trash.
● Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces. COVID-19 spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Symptoms are thought to appear within two to 14 days after exposure and consist of fever, cough, runny nose, and difficulty breathing. For people with mild illness, individuals are asked to stay home, drink plenty of fluids, and get rest. For people with more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, individuals are advised to seek healthcare.