PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – Banner Health says while the number of COVID-19 cases, positivity rate, hospitalizations, patients in the ICU, and ventilator usage are trending in the right direction – down – in Arizona, we’re not out of the woods yet. “These trends are exactly what we would like to see, and we hope that they will continue in the weeks to come, said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer.
Weather delaying vaccine shipments to Arizona
The good news was quickly followed with a caveat about the winter weather that's pummeling parts of the country. Arizona's vaccine supply has been limited since distribution started, but now there's a new hiccup that nobody can do anything about. The weather.
Bessel said doses of the vaccine could be in even shorter supply in the coming days as severe winter weather throughout the country delays Arizona’s shipments.
"It's affecting not just vaccine but also the supplies that we need to distribute and provide vaccine to patients," Bessel said.
That means those who have appointments to get vaccinated at some Banner locations might need to reschedule.
"If you are a patient, with an upcoming appointment, we'll ask you to continue to watch for either a phone call, a text message, or email if there needs to be a change to your appointment," said Bessel.
- Banner sites in Maricopa, Pinal, and Coconino counties have enough doses for the rest of the week.
- The Banner location in Gila County is “slightly short” of what’s needed to cover current appointments.
- Banner's sites in Pima County have enough vaccine for Wednesday's and Thursday's appointments, but appointments on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday “are at risk if we do not get supply.”
Former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services Will Humble said he's confident that the state and counties can make up delayed appointments. He's also not worried about vaccines going bad.
"There are safeguards in place for the shipment of the vaccines. They have data loggers which track the temperature as it moves from place to place," Humble said.
The dry ice keeps the vaccine at super-low temperatures inside insulated boxes.
"It's better to be a day or two late than to have something happen to that shipment because of the weather," said Humble.
Coconino County said it had enough vaccines for everyone on Wednesday but will have to cancel and reschedule first dose appointments on Thursday and Friday. Impacted vaccination sites are Fort Tuthill County Park, Northern Arizona University, Northern Arizona Healthcare/Flagstaff Medical Center (Elks Lodge), and North Country HealthCare. An estimated 1,800 people are impacted by this situation. For more info, visit coconino.az.gov/covid19vaccine or call the COVID-19 Information Line at 928-679-7300.
"ADHS is in close contact with our federal and local partners to monitor the situation, which continues to develop," ADHS spokesman Steve Elliott said Wednesday afternoon. "The federal government has allocated to Arizona 85,800 Pfizer doses and 90,800 Moderna doses for a total allocation of 176,600 doses expected to be delivered across the state this week." Elliott explains that the doses go directly to the provider sites, so ADHS does have specific information on when the doses will arrive.
As of Wednesday morning's data release, Arizona had administered almost 93% of the vaccine doses it ordered. More than 971,000 people have gotten their first shot. More than 313,000 have gotten both shots; two shots are required to achieve the best possible immunity.
Getting the vaccine
Aside from the current shipment problems, Bessel also addressed the difficulty in scheduling appointments to get their COVID-19 shots.
“I know this has been a frustrating experience for many,” she said, advising people to be patient and asking those who qualify to keep trying to schedule an appointment. “It may take you a few tries before you find a site that has availability to accommodate you.” Banner's points of dispensing, known as PODs, are booked but appointments will become available as more doses of the vaccine arrive. The ramping up of the Federal Pharmacy Program and other pop-up vaccination sites in Maricopa County also should help moving forward.
10% more patients in ICU than in a “normal winter”
While things are improving, Bessel said Arizona ICUs are seeing about 10% more patients than they would “at the peak of a normal winter.”
“Some Banner ICUs are still operating at 150% of their licensed bed capacity,” Bessel said, explaining that Banner is still contracting almost 2,000 workers to make sure there are enough frontline workers to care for those patients.
“We expect that our descent from this surge will take much longer than our decline from our summer surge,” Bessel said.
Elective surgeries resume
As the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital skyrocketed, Banner stopped doing non-urgent elective surgeries. That happened shortly before Christmas. Those surgical restrictions were lifted on Monday. The no-visitor policy, however, remains in place until further notice. Bessel said those strict guidelines could be eased in the coming weeks if our positivity rate continues its downward trend.
How long do we have to wear masks?
Bessel also addressed the question on everybody’s mind: When will things get back to normal? She said that while there is no “definitive timeline,” there are a few things that public health experts are watching.
- Community positivity rates <5% (As of Wednesday, we’re sitting at 9%.)
- Reproductive rate <1
- High vaccination rates
“When all these things occur and when we have roughly 70 to 85% herd immunity, it is likely that you’ll see recommendations from public health experts regarding ceasing of current restrictions,” she explained.
“We still are in the midst of a pandemic,” Bessel said, reiterating that people, even those who have been vaccinated, should continue to take precautions like masking and physical distancing. “It is important for us to stay true to science and follow appropriate mitigation, enforcement, and personal accountability.”
“Completely inconsequential influenza season”
Even as the coronavirus has run rampant all winter, the usual major health concern we see this time of year – the flu – has been a nonissue.
“Influenza is not as contagious as COVID,” Bessel explained while discussing our “completely inconsequential influenza season.” “So, all those mitigations that we’ve been doing, the enforcement of mitigation, and our personal accountability have had a very good impact on reducing influenza cases.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that the vaccination availability information is specific to Banner Health sites.