COVID-19 is now “widespread” in Arizona, with 508 diagnosed cases and eight deaåths, according to the State Department of Health Resources on Thursday.
Gila County still has not a single lab-verified case – despite rapidly rising levels in all the surrounding counties, especially Maricopa. The only other county without a confirmed case is tiny Greenlee County, with 9,400 residents.
“Given widespread transmission, all Arizonans should expect that COVID-19 is circulating in their community,” said Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director.
Cases in the state have been increasing by at least 100 per day for the past several days, although reported deaths are rising more slowly. Health officials warn the actual number of cases is probably much higher, given the tight restrictions on who can get tested. Some 80% of those infected have only mild symptoms, according to most studies. Other studies suggest people can pass the virus along for several days before they show any symptoms at all.
Some 300 cases and three deaths have been reported in Maricopa County, normally the chief source of visitors to Rim Country, and the place where many second-home owners live.
Neighboring Navajo County has the third most cases in the state at 43. Most of those cases are connected to a cluster on the Navajo Nation, which has issued a “shelter in place order.” Health investigators say many of those cases are connected to a tent revival meeting several weeks ago. However, at least one case has been confirmed in Southern Navajo County.
Apache County now has nine confirmed cases.
The tally in other neighboring counties includes Coconino (28), Yavapai (5), Pinal (2) and Graham (2).
Christ in a joint press conference with Gov. Doug Ducey predicted that cases will probably peak in mid-April, with the crush for hospitals coming in May.
Some 6,600 Arizona residents have so far been tested for the virus, with about 5% of the tests coming back positive.
Nationally as of Thursday, some 70,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus, with 1,000 deaths. That’s still fewer than the estimated 23,000 to 59,000 flu death so far this season, but flu cases are tapering off while COVID-19 cases are still increasing exponentially.
“We believe the peak of our illnesses will start mid- to late-April, with peak hospitalizations in May. That is what we’re trying to get ahead of,” said Dr. Christ.
Rural areas could face a critical shortage of hospital beds and services. Gila County has just 69 hospital beds. However, 28% of the population’s older than 65 – and therefore at much higher risk of serious illness in the event of an infection. That works out to .001 beds per resident.
By contrast, Maricopa County has 8,100 hospital beds, which works out to .002 beds per resident – twice the per capita supply of Gila County..
The shortage of hospital beds, nurses, doctors, respirators and even gloves, masks and gowns for health workers has largely driven the urgent pleas of health officials for people to stay home and practice social distancing as much as possible. The lack of crowds and close contact may not stop the spread of the virus entirely, but it will slow transmission. If those 13,000 extra hospitalizations hit all at once, the system will go down – forcing doctors to triage respirators and other necessary supportive care.
“We must continue to increase our bed capacity,” said Christ. “With a potential surge of COVID-19 patients, we expect it to be above and beyond our current capacity.”
In the meantime, she urged resident to do everything they can to limit their exposure.
“Given widespread transmission, all Arizonans should expect that COVID-19 is circulating in their community,” said Christ. “COVID-19 is a serious disease that is highly contagious and can be fatal in anyone, especially our elderly population and people with underlying health conditions. Protecting those at highest risk of complications and ensuring that our healthcare system is prepared to deal with a surge in cases is our highest priority. It is imperative that everyone takes precautions to protect themselves and their family from this disease.”