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Regional Report: Healthcare & the economy

Greater Phoenix healthcare and economic leaders joined our first Regional Report of 2021 to discuss COVID-19 vaccinations and provide updates about our region’s hospital infrastructure, and share local and national economic insights.

Welcoming remarks were presented by Heidi Jannenga, co-founder and chief clinical officer of WebPT. Panelists included:

Dr. Cara Christ, director, Arizona Department of Health Services

Linda Hunt, CEO, Arizona Hospitals Dignity Health

Mark Vitner, senior economist, Wells Fargo

Chris Camacho, president & CEO, GPEC

“I have been in healthcare for 50 years and I would have to say, through tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, everything you can think of, this has had to have been the most challenging year. The good news is that we have hope on horizon,” Hunt said. “We need to continue to do things that we know have worked and that is masking up, social distancing, keeping your circle small, washing your hands – probably more than you’ve ever washed them before – and if you’re sick, stay at home.” 

COVID-19 vaccines

The region’s coronavirus vaccine rollout is anchored at State Farm Stadium, where a 24/7 site is operated. The state is administering roughly 200 to 300 vaccinations an hour, and as of Jan. 26, about 500,000 vaccines had been given to patients.

The state is currently in prioritized Phase 1B of vaccination, which focuses on adults over the age of 65, protective services, educational and child care, and other essential workers. It also includes adults with underlying medical conditions. Phase 1A prioritized frontline care, hospital and long-term care staff and residents.

Christ expects to have finished Phase 1A and transitioned to a full Phase 1B by the end of February.

On Feb. 1, a vaccination location opened at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. It currently has a limited number of doses compared to State Farm Stadium, and even as vaccination capacity is scaled up, Christ reminded people to continue personal protocols to help themselves and the community.

“We are in the beginning stages of vaccinating Arizonans against COVID, so the best form of protection right now we have is the vaccine, but also masks,” she said. We don’t know necessarily if you could still get it and be asymptomatic, even after the vaccine but transmit it to others, and until we achieve herd immunity, we will need to continue to wear masks.”

Christ said the department is working with school districts and county health departments to implement targeted outreach to zip codes that have been most significantly impacted by the coronavirus.

“We understand there’s technological issues, there is misinformation out there about the vaccine, and we want to make sure that these communities get the vaccine that they need to stay protected,” Christ said.

She also addressed concerns regarding the emerging strains of COVID-19 from the United Kingdom and South Africa. On Friday, the Arizona health department reported three cases of the new variant from the U.K.

“It looks like the Pfizer vaccine currently covers the strains that we are seeing emerge from the UK and South Africa,” Christ said. “Moderna is working on potentially another vaccine that will better address some of those variants. I think that that’s going to be a challenge moving forward because viruses mutate. They are always trying to make sure that they can continue to exist and proliferate.”

Additionally, a third vaccine may be arriving at the end of February. Johnson & Johnson is developing a single-dose series that Christ believes could be before March.

Until then, Christ encouraged continued countermeasures including wearing masks, and asked local jurisdictions to enforce mandates that apply in business settings.

There is also a continued need for medically certified volunteers to help with the administration of vaccines. If interested, visit the Maricopa County website for more information.

The healthcare experts also helped clarify common misconceptions about the virus and vaccine.

Christ said that even if you’ve had COVID-19, it’s important to get vaccinated.

“People can be re-infected with COVID-19. It’s usually about 90 days or longer after their initial bout,” she said. “Their second bout can be worse than their first bout, and we don’t believe that you have long-lasting immunity after an infection, so we are encouraging everyone to make sure that they get that vaccine in order to stay fully protected.”

Hunt encouraged people to get the vaccination. Anti-vaccination fears are unfounded.

Additionally, Hunt said, hospital systems have seen a noticeable difference in capacity during the coronavirus than in a severe flu season. Some were filled to 150% capacity, with beds in cafeterias.

“Two weeks ago, we had close to 725 people in the hospital that had COVID. In a normal year, we might have 200 (with severe flu),” Hunt said regrading Dignity Health’s capacity. “So it’s three times worse than the regular flu season has been.”

Finally, while people are getting vaccinations, we’re still a way off from COVID-19 being over.

“I think the vaccines are exciting, but it’s not the cure-all yet. We have to have herd immunity and so we have a long way to go,” said Hunt. “So don’t stop what you’re doing. Wear your mask, wash your hands, keep your circles small, if you’re feeling ill, please don’t go into work.”

Healthcare & the Economy

If the pace at which residents receive vaccinations can continue or increase, Vitner sees a path in which the state needs about half a year to begin resuming some normal activity.

“I think that we could reach a threshold in early- to mid-summer where people would once again reengage in economic activity,” he said.

If the state can get control over the coronavirus by that time, there could be real economic rebound. After about 1.5% growth in the first quarter, Vitner projected a potential 3.5-4% in the spring and as much as 8% in the following two quarters.

He thinks the Arizona economy can recover its economic losses from the crisis in the first quarter of 2022.

“It is encouraging — when you go through a recession, it tends to accelerate trends that were already in place, and I think a lot of those trends are very favorable to Arizona,” Vitner said. “I think that once we move past COVID, we’re going to have a nice bounce to economic activity that’s going to be lasting for some time.”

Among these trends is the innovation in the medical field.

Hunt said that hospitals were particularly affected by the first surge in which people who needed surgeries and other procedures were staying away in fear of contracting the virus.

There shouldn’t be this worry for those who need hospital visits, she said.

“With telemedicine and different ways of receiving care, we’re trying to encourage and continue to get out the message. Our facilities are clean. Where the general public comes in, we require, obviously, masking and certain procedures that have to occur, but it is safe to come to your doctor’s office. It is safe to come to the hospital,” Hunt said. 

For those who don’t need a procedure and would feel more comfortable at their own home, there are emerging options.

“Many of the technological advances we have made have been very helpful,” Hunt said. “Think about a year ago, would you have thought about a virtual visit? But that has been a godsend, especially for people with chronic disease.”

A key to the recovery will be the safety of being in high-contact areas. Vitner indicated that 60% of jobs that have not yet been recovered are in businesses such as restaurants, hair salons, fitness centers and entertainment venues. As long as COVID-19 remains a threat, the recovery will be stalled.

 “(These venues are) not going to see a recovery until people feel it’s safe to move about and to reengage in the economy,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what threshold we’re going to have to hit in terms of vaccinations, but I feel pretty confident that we’re not going to get there until early- to mid-summer.”

Arizona’s history when it comes to business regulations is promising for a quicker recovery than some other areas of the nation.

“For years we’ve been focused on being pro-business and being problem-solving, and really pragmatic for how we interface with industry, whereas some of the other markets including California, New York, Chicago, some of these others that have responded with just draconian approaches to this COVID era, not only economically are they feeling the challenge, but politically, too,” Camacho said.

“I know in our state, the key business groups … are coordinated on ensuring that we have liability protection reform going into place to ensure that small and large business get treated fairly.”

Read our past Regional Report blog recaps