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Maricopa County health director says 3rd COVID-19 surge possible, but 'won't derail our success'

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Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-05 08:41:50-05

PHOENIX — Maricopa County is home to nearly 4.5 million people and more than 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases over the course of this pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The Valley has been hit hard by the coronavirus, but through the darkness of 2020, there are glimmers of hope in 2021.

"Our case numbers are continuing to trend downward from a peak in early January," explains Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, Medical Director for Disease Control with the Maricopa County Health Department. "We're also seeing a downward trend in hospitalizations and, thankfully, our deaths related to COVID-19."

But Dr. Sunenshine also says as this is still a relatively new illness, there are many unanswered questions.

"They've been steadily going downward. They may be leveling off, but it's really too soon to say and we're still not exactly sure why they trended down when they did, but we are grateful to see this trend."

There's also the issue of the variants, like the one from the United Kingdom, which scientists say can spread even faster. According to the CDC, Arizona has more than a dozen confirmed cases of that variant.

RELATED: What is a COVID-19 variant and what do they mean for the community?

"Some experts are predicting we could see a surge in March because of that strain becoming the dominant strain. We don't know if there will be a third peak, so the most important thing we can do right now, even though our case numbers are declining, we still have a lot of transmission here. We are still in the red zone. We want to make sure people keep wearing their masks, wash their hands, stay home when they're sick, avoid large groups and get the vaccine when they can or are eligible to get it."

As of now, Dr. Sunenshine doesn't think the variants will have a catastrophic impact on the progress Arizona has made.

"I don't think it will derail all of our success. What we know so far with the UK variant, and that's the one that is most likely to spread and is more contagious, it doesn't necessarily cause more disease. It's just more contagious... we know that it responds to the vaccines that we have available. So the vaccine is still very effective."

And the vaccine is still our best way out of this health crisis and into herd immunity. Dr. Sunenshine says roughly one in five adults in Maricopa County has received at least one dose of the vaccine with around 20,000 adults getting vaccinated daily.

RELATED: Herd immunity and what it means during the COVID-19 pandemic

But the process hasn't been without challenges.

"Maricopa County is so geographically large, they have to travel far to get there. That makes it challenging for people without transportation. That's why we're working so closely with the state to make sure we have ways to transport people to the PODs and also that we are bringing these smaller vaccine events to vulnerable communities who may not have transportation."

Dr. Sunenshine says she is still consulting with the state to see how many doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Maricopa County will get but expects the first batch to arrive around the middle of the month.

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