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‘Clusters’ of COVID-19 give Pima County a disproportionate share of deaths in Arizona

Posted at 5:14 PM, Apr 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-03 00:00:08-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — Pima County has taken on a disproportionate share of COVID-19-related deaths in Arizona.

The county accounts for 15% of cases and tests in the state, but about 34% of its deaths.

That's how Pima County's chief medical officer, Dr. Francisco Garcia, put it at a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors Thursday.

With 237 confirmed cases of the virus in Pima County, 11 have died -- a death rate of just over 4.6 percent. That's more than double the statewide average of about 2 percent. Maricopa County, which has nearly four times as many cases as Pima County, has just 12 deaths, or a 1.2 percent of its cases.


Why is that number so high here in Pima County? That was the subject of some discussion at Thursday morning's special meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

The county's chief medical advisor, Dr. Francisco Garcia, said there are two major factors they believe are contributing to that.

Age Demographics

Dr. Garcia says the county's demographic skews older, and older patients are more at risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.

The median age in Pima County is 39, with about 20% of its residents over the age of 65, according to census data. But that's only slightly more than comparable figures statewide -- with a median age of 38 and 18% of residents over 65.

So it seems like age demographics in Pima County would only account for a slightly higher-than-average death rate in the state, rather than more than 100% higher. So what else could be the issue?

"Clusters" of infections

"We know that, specifically, long-term care facilities, SNFs (Skilled Nursing Facilities) and dialysis centers are taking care of particularly vulnerable individuals," Dr. Garcia told the Board of Supervisors Thursday. "And we know that we have had a couple of clusters associated with two such facilities."

One of the facilities he's undoubtedly referring to is Sapphire of Tucson, which sits just south of University Medical Center-South near Country Club Road and I-10. A representative of that nursing home confirmed at least 27 cases of the virus there Monday. When reached for comment Thursday afternoon, the representative declined to give an update on that number.

The virus can rip through these types of facilities quickly and brutally, causing a disproportionate amount of hospitalizations and deaths -- both because of the congregate living and the high-risk patients who live there. Nowhere was this more apparently than at a nursing facility in King County, Washington, in the early days of the outbreak in the U.S. It was at the epicenter of 129 cases and 23 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Aaron Pacheco of the Pima County Department of Public Health says they're working closely with these types of facilities with larger outbreaks, providing a customized plan for each facility and new policy guidance to slow its spread.