As hospitalizations rise and the holidays approach, health officials concerned about a new wave of infections are urging Arizonans to take preventative measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and seasonal influenza.

Maricopa County last week experienced the biggest spike in daily cases since August, peaking at 4,708 on Nov. 8. COVID 19 hospitalizations and ICU cases also are up at the state’s largest hospital systems, placing strain on a workforce already struggling with staff shortages.

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“We still have some capacity, but we’re stretched thin,” Dr. Michael White, chief clinical officer at Valleywise Health, told a news conference Wednesday. “It’s not just available space to take care of folks, it’s the qualified health care professionals and the team we need to be able to care for patients at the ICU level of care.”

White said there were 40 COVID-positive patients hospitalized on Wednesday, twice the number of three weeks ago.

Banner Health, Arizona’s largest health care system, which treats 44% of all COVID 19 cases in the state, reports a significant increase in COVID 19 admissions in the last week. Banner on Tuesday reported the highest ICU census in the past eight months.

The largest spike in the pandemic so far in Arizona occurred in early January, just after last year’s holiday season.

In the face of this growing concern, White stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, and he advised against relying on recently developed antiviral pills, such as Molnupiravir.

“It is a tool, but it is not the most effective tool,” White said. “We can use some prophylactics with the monoclonal antibodies, but we know that again, that … the vaccine is the most effective way to be able to prevent the spread of this virus.”

As of Wednesday, about 3.8 million Arizonans – 53% of the population – were fully vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Arizona Department of Health Services says.

According to a report by the department, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in Arizona through 2020, behind heart disease and cancer, and made up about 11% of all deaths in the state that year.

With the start of the holiday season, COVID-19 isn’t the only virus to worry about, White said. Influenza infections in Arizona typically begin climbing in November before peaking about New Year’s, and although the seasonal flu is significantly less deadly than COVID-19, it still can be dangerous.

As with COVID 19, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated to prevent catching or spreading influenza, a recommendation that White echoed.

Given that it is not always possible to avoid coming into contact with unvaccinated people during the holidays, White suggested taking other measures to avoid virus transmission.
“Number 1 is, be outside if we can. If we can be outside, that is the safest place to be as we celebrate the holidays. If we can’t, then I’d recommend wearing masks.”


Story by Michael Patton, Cronkite News