Modeler says unchecked COVID will create ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Arizona

Dec 14, 2020, 11:25 AM | Updated: 12:41 pm
Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) during Thank...
Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center on November 26, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)
(Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – A University of Arizona researcher says a “major humanitarian crisis” appears inevitable in the state because of the unmitigated spread of COVID-19.

“We have now all but locked in a major humanitarian crisis during the Christmas-New Year holiday with hundreds of preventable deaths per week,” Dr. Joe Gerald, a member of the Tucson school’s COVID-19 Modeling Team, wrote Friday in his weekly pandemic report.

The report (which has the following disclaimer: “This information represents my personal views and not those of The University of Arizona, the Zuckerman College of Public Health, or any other government entity”) is filled with dire projections and amplifies warnings issued by the UArizona COVID-19 Modeling Team at the end of November.

“Hospital COVID-19 occupancy has now exceeded the previous peak number of hospitalized patients and ICUs will set new records by the end of next week,” Friday’s report says. “By early January, hospital capacity will be overwhelmed by new COVID-19 cases.”

The day the report was issued, the number of Arizona’s confirmed or suspected COVID-19 inpatients surpassed July’s record levels, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Sunday was the third consecutive record-setting day for coronavirus hospitalizations.

Gerald wrote that Arizona hospitals have begun postponing surgeries for non-COVID conditions to create capacity to accommodate the flood of virus patients. He said that the extra capacity is likely to be overwhelmed, however.

“Make no mistake, the COVID-19 crisis is now placing a greater share of Arizonans’ health at-risk, not just those unfortunate enough to contract COVID-19,” he wrote.

On Nov. 27, the COVID Modeling Team said in a letter to health department that taking no extra steps “would be akin to facing a major forest fire without evacuation orders.”

The modelers urged the state to enact a three-week stay-home shutdown, among other measures.

“Something has to be done,” Gerald told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Gaydos and Chad Show on Nov. 30. “The only wrong thing to do is nothing and right now we’re not doing very much.”

On Friday, Gerald again called for shelter-in-place order, along with a statewide face mask requirement and sanctions for people and businesses who don’t follow the mandates. He said those moves should come with financial aid to those impacted.

“If such actions are taken, they must be accompanied by additional state funds to alleviate food insecurity, to prevent evictions and foreclosures, and to protect access to health services as the loss of economic support from the CARES Act is a likely contributor to increased transmission,” he said.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate and has not further restricted capacity or moved to shut down businesses where people gather, even in counties where all three of the health department’s benchmarks have returned to substantial spread status. He’s maintained that local mask regulations and requirements in certain venues statewide are sufficient and cover 90% of Arizona.

He has instead focused his recent policy on helping businesses stay open – such as making it easier for restaurants to expand their outdoor service areas – and funding and staffing hospitals to deal with the rising number of COVID-19 patients.

Gerald and the modeling team aren’t alone in predicting that Arizona’s hospitals will soon be overwhelmed because of insufficient state action.

“There were opportunities that we had going back two and three months ago to do much better enforcement of the existing mitigation measures that are in place,” Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association and former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, told Gaydos and Chad last week.

“But instead they allowed businesses, bars, restaurants and nightclubs to ignore those mitigation measures, and that set us on a path towards exponential growth,” Humble said.

While approved vaccines started arriving in Arizona on Monday, the first allotment isn’t expected to be enough to help with the hospital capacity crunch any time soon.

“I don’t know that it’s going to [alleviate] much pressure from our hospitals, but as we get to expand and have more vaccine available, we are going to, hopefully, start seeing that exact effect,” Maricopa County Public Health Director Marcy Flanagan told KTAR News’ Arizona’s Morning News last week.

“What it is going to help do, the initial shipments we start receiving this month, [is] help preserve our health care workers more than anything. … It’s going to help preserve our health care system,” she said.

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Modeler says unchecked COVID will create ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Arizona