Arizona bracing for another post-holiday COVID-19 spike this weekend

Arizona, facing the worst COVID-19 diagnosis rate in the U.S., will likely see another large spike this weekend tied to New Year’s gatherings and travel, the state’s top health official said on Jan. 8.

It was expected following a surge from other holidays. In Arizona, one in every 111 people was diagnosed with the coronavirus from Dec. 31 to Jan. 7.

"Three to five days after Christmas and Christmas Eve were our highest days yet," Dr. Cara Christ, head of the state Department of Health Services, said during a virtual briefing. "So, we know that people got together and that they let their guard down."

The state is considered a national COVID-19 hot spot and has surpassed 10,000 total deaths. Stressed-out leaders of Arizona’s biggest hospital systems and others have frequently called on Gov. Doug Ducey and Christ to implement tighter restrictions to stop the virus’s spread. They have urged a statewide mask mandate, a temporary ban on indoor dining and closing bars and gyms.

The Republican governor has rejected those calls.

The issue is people not following the efforts already in place, Christ said. More than 90% of the state already has mask mandates in place but there hasn’t been enough enforcement at the local level, she added. States can only do so much.

"As you’re looking at what’s going on in other states, there’s not a best practices model," she said. "You’ve got Florida, who has no mitigation strategies, that is in the same boat. You’ve got California, who has stricter mitigation strategies, that is in the same boat."

Health officials also have been preparing for the next phase of the state’s vaccination plan. Next week, Maricopa and Pima counties, the two most populous, will begin vaccinating teachers, first responders and those age 75 and older. They expect to allocate more than 125,000 doses next week, Christ said.

Several other counties already have expanded vaccine eligibility and begun registering those groups. Health care workers and people who live or work at long-term care facilities were in the first phase of the vaccine rollout, which began last month.

An estimated 45% of the state’s front-line health care workers have received vaccinations so far. Many others have appointments scheduled later this month, Christ said.

The suburban Phoenix stadium that is home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals will be used as a mass vaccination site starting Monday. The goal is for thousands of people to be able to get vaccinated daily at the State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

"We need to get these vaccine doses out of freezers and into the arms of Arizonans who want it, and our new site will speed up that process," Ducey said in a statement.

The state has received 314,750 vaccine doses as of last week. Health officials expected 140,000 this week, with around 60,000 of those being second doses. Last month, Arizona only inoculated about 20% of the people it could with available vaccines. Initially, it struggled to mount a mass program that will eventually provide protection to all residents who want the shots.

Arizona on Friday reported 11,658 new known infections and 197 more deaths. There were 4,907 COVID-19 patients hospitalized Thursday, including a pandemic record 1,122 in intensive care, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

The new numbers bring the state’s totals to 596,251 infections and 9,938 deaths. The true number of cases is likely much higher because not everyone is tested and some people can be infected without showing symptoms.

Ducey’s office announced earlier Friday that the federal government was providing Arizona with $65.8 million to bolster the state’s vaccination program.

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Associated Press writer Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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