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 Wednesday, 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 last 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. In fact, 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, however, assumes that hospitals can find the qualified medical personnel to staff these beds.
Earlier Wednesday, Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said the problem now, unlike this past summer when virus cases peaked here, 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.
Ducey on Wednesday did agree to provide an additional $60 million to Arizona hospitals to help them find the staff they need to handle the surge of people needing medical care. 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.
That trend is not unique to Banner
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 this week to impose the additional restrictions. In fact, Bessel specifically praised Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and the city council for voting Tuesday night to impose as 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, for his part, is not interested, even as he conceded that the vaccines, which will only start to be available later this month — and only for those in the highest priority classes — won’t make any immediate dent in what has been an increasing trend in cases.
“We are in for a tough several weeks here,” the governor said.
The governor also said he was giving his “most sincere condolences” to the families of the 6,739 people who have died so far from COVID-19.
“We grieve every death in Arizona and want to continue to do everything we can to contain the spread of this virus and protect lives,” Ducey said.
But not the kind of new restrictions being urged by the hospital medical chiefs and others. And not the kind of curfew that takes effect Friday in Tucson.
“I don’t think its the right approach,” he said.
“We want to do things that will allow businesses to operate safely,” Ducey continued. And he said the restrictions imposed in late June, like occupancy limits on in-house restaurant dining, movie theaters and fitness centers, along with enforcement, “will be the best things we can do to continue to slow the spread.”
The governor brushed aside questions about the fact that the spread is not slowing, even as Christ acknowledged that 15% of the tests for the virus conducted last week are coming back positive.
“This week we’re trending higher,” she said.
And the number of new cases reported per day actually hit a record on Nov. 23. Figures for more recent dates are still being updated.
For Ducey, the 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. And the governor said there are 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 Wednesday 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.
Nothing in Ducey’s orders, however, affect those activities he said are protected by the First Amendment, like the rallies the governor attended during the campaign for President Trump.
That, then, leaves the vaccines.
Ducey said first priority will go to health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities and other “vulnerable” populations. And 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. There also is a separate $100,000 going to the Arizona Restaurant Association for the same purpose and another $100,000 to the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association to aid hotels and their restaurants in strengthening their sanitation and mitigation practices to protect patrons and staff.
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.