COVID-19 Like airports across the country, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has seen traffic drop sharply this year because of COVID-19, and the number of holiday travelers is expected to be half of what it was last year. But millions across the country will still be traveling for Thanksgiving week.
Photo by Allie Barton/Cronkite News

Arizona has seen 7,358 COVID deaths—more than double the number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks. 

Health experts warned the US that Thanksgiving gatherings and travel would lead to an increased spread of COVID-19. 

And now, two weeks after the holiday, the state is seeing the effects. 

Before Thanksgiving, the highest daily count had been just 5,954 cases on Nov. 23.

As of Monday, Dec. 8 holds the record for highest number of cases confirmed in one day in Arizona. More than 8,000 positive samples were collected that day. The previous peak was Nov. 30—the Monday after Thanksgiving—with 7,857 positive samples.

No day after Dec. 8 has crossed 8,000 cases, but that may change. The Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) notes that cases from the last four to seven days may not yet be reported on its dashboard. 

The need for intensive care unit (ICU) beds has also been increasing. Hospitals were so full Dec. 12 that only 8% of ICU beds were available. COVID patients took up 48% of ICU beds. 

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer at Banner Health, said during a press conference last week that the hospital system expects to hit 100% licensed bed capacity on Dec. 15 and 125% capacity on Dec. 18. 

“If a hospital reaches or exceeds capacity in an intensive care unit, it means they are using all their assigned patient beds within that unit and may need to use alternative space to treat these patients,” Banner spokesperson David Lozano wrote in an email to The Copper Courier. “Our hospitals have plans in place to make sure patients are receiving appropriate care while utilizing resources to efficiently treat cases.”

As of Monday, Arizona has seen a total of 420,248 cases and 7,358 deaths—more than double the number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks

Holiday Connection

AZDHS Director Dr. Cara Christ pointed to Thanksgiving as a factor in the rise in cases.

“Honestly, it’s likely the first signs of the outcome of Thanksgiving,” she told KTAR News last week. “So we’re about 10 days out. That’s when we would anticipate to see an increase in cases.”

Nearly 7.5 million people traveled through US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) airport checkpoints Nov. 22-29. 

Health experts are concerned that Christmas and other upcoming winter holidays will do even more to spread the virus if people don’t celebrate safely. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends celebrating in person only with household members and including others virtually. If people are gathering, the CDC recommends keeping them small and outdoors, if possible. 

As of Monday, COVID-19 was spreading in Arizona faster than almost all other states. This ranking is based on the state’s R0, also known as the R-naught, a mathematical figure measuring how contagious a virus is. An R0 above 1 means the virus is spreading quickly, while below 1 means the number of infected people will shrink over time. 

Arizona’s R0 was at 1.17. Only 11 states were below 1 on Monday. 

Despite scientists and lawmakers calling for stricter safety measures, Gov. Doug Ducey has still not implemented a statewide mask mandate or closed any businesses. Instead, he’s deferred to local city authorities.

On Dec. 2, his most recent briefing, he announced funding to hire more hospital staff and allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining. 

He also announced COVID-19 vaccines would be free for all Arizonans. The state received its first doses of the vaccine Monday and will begin distributing it to county health departments and tribal health facilities. The vaccine is expected to be available to the general public in the spring.