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Arizona Coronavirus Cases Surge, Health Care System Overloaded As Vaccines Slowly Roll Out

By Mark Brodie, Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, December 14, 2020 - 12:53pm
Updated: Tuesday, December 15, 2020 - 10:40am

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It’s a big day in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

Arizona is receiving its first doses of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer. Health care workers, emergency service providers and long-term care staff and residents will be the first to receive the limited doses in this first round. Other essential workers and high-risk groups will also be in the first phase of distribution. 

This week, the first 56,000 doses will go to health care workers in Maricopa and Pima counties. And officials are expecting the first doses of the Moderna vaccine will arrive next week. Hundreds of millions of doses are expected by mid-spring.

During a press conference on Dec. 11, state health director Dr. Cara Christ said local jurisdictions will establish regional locations to vaccinate those in the first priority groups.

“For example, Maricopa County will activate regional points of distribution or dispensing — or, they’re also called pod sites — throughout the county for the Phase 1A groups. So, over the next several weeks, this will include five drive-through vaccination sites across the county," Christ said.

Dr. Cara Christ
Austin Fast/KJZZ
Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, announces COVID-19 vaccines should be available for high-priority health care workers in Maricopa and Pima counties the week of Dec. 14 at a news conference Dec. 11, 2020.

Christ cautioned that even those who receive the vaccine should continue practicing other public health guidelines. The goal is to reach herd immunity before we scale back on things like wearing masks and limiting group activities. 

But we don’t yet know when exactly there will be enough doses for everyone.

“So, while we don’t know exactly when we’ll have enough vaccine available for everyone who chooses to be vaccinated to get vaccinated, we do know that next week we should start receiving the first doses,” Christ said.

Christ made a point to mention people who choose to be vaccinated. That’s because no one will be required to receive a vaccine, including those in long-term care. 

“We are not mandating vaccine for anybody, so people can decline," Christ said. "It’s not going to be a mandate in these facilities. And even if they don’t get it the first go-around, that doesn’t mean that they are prohibited from getting it once we move on to the [other] phases.”

Meanwhile, hospital staff are still bracing for more severe cases before enough of the vaccine can reach the general public. And the stress is showing in some unexpected ways.

An ER doctor at the Yuma Regional Medical Center says he was fired over a social media post about the lack of ICU beds in the state — a reality that multiple hospital officials and frontline workers have shared.

Dr. Cleavon Gilman says he has lost trust with officials at the Yuma center. And though officials say he was scheduled to work over the weekend, Gilman told KAWC he wouldn’t be there.

“I can’t trust a place that would do this to an Iraq War veteran and a person that has been very outspoken about the pandemic trying to raise awareness about this and not allow me to work during this surge,” Gilman said.

And the state Department of Health Services reported 11,795 new cases of COVID-19 on Dec. 14 — that’s despite typically lower numbers on Mondays due to a lag in weekend reporting. More than 420,000 cases have now been confirmed in Arizona since the start of the pandemic, and the state’s positivity rate was the highest in the nation last week, signaling more to come.

For more on the state's health care system and the surge in cases, The Show spoke with Ann-Marie Alameddin, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. 

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