PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – With a little more than a week to go until the end of the month, July has more reported cases of COVID-19 as in the entire month of June. As of Wednesday morning, there have been 14,630 cases reported in Arizona in July compared to 13,612 cases in June. The Arizona Department of Health Services has reported more than 950 cases per day for the last eight days. All but one of those days had more than 1,000 newly reported cases. If that trend continues, Arizona is on track to surpass the monthly totals from May 2021, and possibly March 2021 and April 2021, as well.
"We are concerned and we are seeing an increase in the number of cases here in Arizona," Dr. Cara Christ told Arizona's Family during "Good Morning Arizona" on Wednesday. "We attribute that to the very contagious Delta variant. We're seeing it in all parts of the state."
“Things are definitely accelerating, and if we stay on this trend, we could definitely see a new surge,” Dr. Joshua LaBaer of ASU’s Biodesign Institute said Wednesday. He also explained that the Delta variant of the coronavirus is much more transmissible than the original virus. According to LaBaer, three things are driving the current surge -- the Delta variant, fewer people wearing masks, and more activities indoors because of Arizona's summer heat. "We know the virus spreads much more quickly indoors than outdoors," he said.
While we are looking at another wave, LaBaer said this time around, there's less danger of straining our health care system to the breaking point like we saw last summer and over the winter.
Arizona’s monthly COVID-19 case count peaked in December with more than 220,000 cases. That dropped to just below 200,000 in January and nose-dived to nearly 45,500 in February. Except for a relatively small blip in April over March -- April had almost 450 more reported cases than March -- we’ve seen a fairly steady decrease in reported cases until now.
Our weekly percent positivity, which spent several weeks in the 5-6% range, has been on the rise recently. In early June, it was 5%. By the end of the month, it had crept up to 6%. Last week (the week of July 11), we jumped back up to double digits, which we haven’t seen since the beginning of February. At the height of our two surges, we were at or above 20%. As of Wednesday, we’re at 13% for the week, according to ADHS. The average for July is 10%, twice the average positivity rate for June.
The number of people in the hospital has steadily increased this month, as well. On July 1, ADHS report 530 people in the hospital. The most recent numbers were in the low 800s. Visits to Arizona’s emergency departments for suspected COVID-19 have run between about 800 and 950 this month. In June, it was between 700 and 850, with a couple of 900+ days.
The numbers of ICU beds and ventilators have ticked up, as well, but are much lower than what we saw during last summer’s surge and the winter’s worse surge.
Delta variant and vaccination rates
The apparent increase in COVID-19 cases in Arizona comes amid national headlines about the Delta variant taking hold in some places and the number of people who have chosen not to get one of the three available vaccines. In Arizona, a little more than 51% of the population is vaccinated. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of the US popular older than 12 -- younger kids are not eligible for any of the vaccines yet -- has been fully vaccinated.
Christ said 90% of July's reported COVID-cases involved people who have not been vaccinated and many of those infections are probably the Delta variant. She explained that random samples of coronavirus tests from Arizona are sent for variant sequencing. "Not everyone gets tested, but it gives us a good idea of the proportion. ... We know Delta variant is here in the community and anticipate that that is the one that's becoming the most predominant strain and likely what someone is going to come into contact with."
While there are more cases of COVID-19 in Arizona this month, the number of deaths has not increased. At this point, July has fewer than half of the deaths reported in June. There can be a lag in death reporting, ADHS says on its COVID-19 data dashboard.
ADHS continues to recommend vaccine
"What we are seeing is that this is primarily impacting mostly unvaccinated individuals," Christ explained.
Just last week, the head of the CDC said COVID-19 "is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated." Christ echoed that on Wednesday. "What we are seeing is this pandemic is shifting from a general pandemic to a pandemic in the unvaccinated." LaBaer agreed, stressing the importance of getting both doses. He said the best protection from the Delta variant comes after that second shot.
Another health expert also sounded the alarm for those who have not gotten the vaccine. "If you are unvaccinated, the risk is incredibly high -- and maybe in some areas higher than it's ever been," said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
"Our best recommendation is to get fully vaccinated," Christ told Scott Pasmore and Olivia Fierro. "It's the best prevention that we have against COVID-19."
Sending Arizona kids back to school
While the American Academy of Pediatrics says kids should mask up for school, it's not a mandate in Arizona. Gov. Doug Ducey said our school districts cannot require students to wear masks.
"While schools aren't mandating masks, parents still have the option to send their kids [to school] with masks," Christ said. A mom of three herself, Christ said her children -- two of whom are not old enough to be vaccinated -- will be wearing masks. "I don't want them getting COVID. I don't want them bringing COVID home to me or to some of our high-risk family members."
"That's a choice that each family has to make," she continued. "But we would highly encourage [it], especially if they're unvaccinated. Have them wear a mask while they're at school."
One public health expert said Arizona should go back to requiring masks inside. Christ said she does not see the state returning to a mask mandate, but that does not change the agency's recommendation for people to mask up. "If you are unvaccinated and you are out in public, we would recommend that you wear a mask."