Arizona is expected to receive “hundreds of thousands” of doses of vaccine for COVID-19 by the end of the month, state health chief Cara Christ said Dec. 2, with priority for health-care workers, vulnerable populations, residents of long-term care facilities, and teachers.
The announcement came even as she disclosed that one person out of every seven who got tested for the virus the previous week showed they were infected. And her agency reported a new one-day record for cases.
But Gov. Doug Ducey, standing at her side, refused to put any new mitigation measures or restrictions in place to get the state past the point where a majority of Arizonans can actually be inoculated.
He specifically rejected a proposal by the chief medical officers of several Arizona hospitals to put in place a curfew, close restaurants to indoor dining and cancel group athletic activities. Instead, Ducey said he is relying on the idea that Arizona will have sufficient hospital beds to treat those who get ill in the interim.
That assumes that hospitals can find the qualified medical personnel to staff these beds.
Earlier the same day, Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said the problem now is that Arizona is no longer the only state with a surge. That makes it difficult to recruit help from elsewhere.
And while Banner is in the process of filling 1,500 positions, she said efforts are still underway to hire 900 more.
At another press conference Dec. 4, Christ said 380,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine are expected by Dec. 15, to be provided first to health care workers and first responders.
Christ noted the state submitted its plans for vaccine distribution to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for approval.
Under that plan, hundreds of approved providers could begin vaccinating Arizonans, with health care workers and long-term care residents first. Christ said priority groups should be vaccinated by the end of February and that anyone in the state who wants the two-dose vaccination should have received it by late summer or early fall.
Christ called the vaccine a “light at the end of the tunnel” during a dark time for the state: Confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths are surging in Arizona, with the health department reporting more than 11,000 new cases Dec. 3-4 alone.
Arizona will be told each week how many doses to expect, and it will allot those by county, based on the percentage of county residents in a priority group. The counties will then tell the state how many doses to send, and where, and the state will relay that information to the CDC distributor.
“The CDC distributor will ship the vaccine directly to the providers that are approved to receive an allocation,” Christ said. “So, the state and local health departments will not receive that vaccine or serve as a middleman in the distribution chain.”
Ducey agreed to provide an additional $60 million to Arizona hospitals to help them find the staff there. That is on top of a $25 million infusion less than a month ago.
But Bessel said the picture in Arizona is “grim,’’ predicting that Banner hospitals will hit 125% of bed capacity this month and even exceed that, at least briefly, in January.
The most recent data from the Arizona Department of Health Services already has ICU bed use at 90% of capacity.
Hitting 125% is not necessarily a problem, as hospitals are required to have made plans for that surge, including converting other non-ICU beds and other facilities for intensive-care use. But the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation predicts that the demand for ICU beds will hit 300% of capacity by the middle of January unless there are steps taken to curb the spread of the virus.
It was for that reason that Bessel and medical officers from Mayo Clinic and Dignity Health specifically asked Christ to impose the additional restrictions.
In fact, Bessel specifically praised Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and the city council for voting to impose a 10 p.m. curfew that will run for three weeks.
“A curfew is mitigation that absolutely can work,’’ Bessel said. “It can work, and it will work if we deploy it.’’
Ducey conceded that the vaccines, which will only start to be available later this month only for those in the highest priority classes, won’t make any immediate dent in the increasing trend in cases.
“We are in for a tough several weeks here,’’ the governor said.
As for Tucson’s curfew, Ducey said, “I don’t think it’s the right approach.”
“We want to do things that will allow businesses to operate safely,’’ Ducey continued.
The governor brushed aside questions about the rapid virus spread, even as Christ acknowledged that 15% of the tests for the virus conducted the previous week are coming back positive. His focus is on the economy.
“I don’t think the right answer is to throw hundreds of thousands of Arizonans out of work before the holidays to slow this spread, because I don’t think it would slow the spread,’’ he said.
The governor noted other complications of restrictions, “like suicide attempts, like depression, like emotional and social disconnection, like child abuse and like domestic violence.’’
The lone new regulation of sorts that Ducey did impose is not actually anything the state would enforce.
His current executive orders prohibit gatherings of more than 50 unless local governments approve. Now, the governor said, these governments will have to have a written agreement with event organizers that they will require and enforce certain safety measures, like distancing and the use of masks.
For vaccines, Ducey said first priority will go to health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities and other “vulnerable’’ populations.
The governor is specifically including teachers in that first group.
That dovetails with his often-repeated argument that he wants more in-classroom teaching and less online education. The premise is that once teachers have immunity, they will be more willing to return to work.
And while the date for vaccines for all Arizonans has yet to be determined, Ducey issued an executive order spelling out that all residents will be able to get inoculated “without financial barriers.’’
Ducey also set aside $1 million in grants to help restaurants and other dining facilities expand their outdoor dining operations.
But not everything being done for restaurants is financial.
Ducey is suspending a provision in law that says restaurants can serve alcoholic beverages only to patrons dining in-house or at an outdoor patio directly connected to the business.
That has proven to be a barrier for restaurants that have received local permission to operate in parking lots and even on cordoned-off areas of the street because there is a sidewalk in between.
The governor said that prohibition makes no sense when the state, with its good weather, should be encouraging more dining outdoors, where the risk of spreading the virus is reduced.
Cronkite News contributed to this story.