Celebrate holiday with a healthy dose of caution – emphasis on healthy

Memorial Day cookouts mark a traditional start to summer but group gatherings, like this one in 2011 for crew of the USS George H.W. Bush, came with a risk of COVID-19 in 2020. Health experts say get-togethers are safer this holiday – but that safety measures should still be observed. (Photo by Spc. 2nd Class Jennifer L. Jaqua/U.S. Navy)

WASHINGTON – Arizona residents should feel comfortable celebrating Memorial Day this year, but health experts said they still need to be careful to keep from repeating last year’s mistakes, when unguarded partying led to a “lethal July.”

Restrictions on businesses and individuals were relaxed in the weeks before Memorial Day 2020, and state recommendations that people maintain social distancing and that businesses sanitize, provide protective equipment and ensure physical distance were largely ignored.

Crowds turned out in Scottsdale and Lake Havasu, among other spots, and people packed bars, parties and cookouts as if “the pandemic is behind us, let’s party,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association.

“Two incubation periods after last year’s Memorial Day, hospitals were full and people were dying left and right,” Humble said.

He and others expect the situation on the ground to be much the same this holiday weekend, but with one key difference – this year there’s a vaccine and COVID-19 numbers continue to trend sharply downward.

More than 5.8 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered as of Friday, with more than 2.75 million Arizonans, or 45.9% of the state population, fully vaccinated. New cases, deaths and hospitalizations have all fallen.

Related story

But that does not mean the state is in the clear: Half of Arizona’s population is still not vaccinated and the transmission rate is “substantial” – more than 50 new cases a week per 100,000 residents, the second-highest of four transmission categories. Only Cochise and Greenlee counties were in the low transmission category, with fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000.

“Having 45.3 percent of Arizona’s population vaccinated reduces the chances of a spike in cases and stress on the healthcare system, but unvaccinated people remain at risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19,” said Steve Elliott, communications director for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said earlier this week.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state have eased health restrictions for those who are vaccinated, nothing has changed for those who are not vaccinated.

“Those that decided not to get the vaccine, they really need to protect themselves and avoid situations where they’re at an increased risk, like large events and indoor gatherings,” said Dr. Daniel Derksen, a professor of public health at the University of Arizona.

For those people, the guidance is pretty much the same they have been hearing for the past year: wash hands frequently, wear a mask in public, maintain physical distance from others and stay home if sick.

“We can’t predict what people will and won’t do in social settings, but for those that are unvaccinated we hope they follow CDC guidance to prevent infection and further spread of this virus,” said David Lozano, associate director with Banner Health Marketing.

He said Banner Health is not worried about huge spikes in hospitalizations following Memorial Day, but that COVID-19 transmission among non-vaccinated individuals remains a concern.

Humble said that vaccination rates among younger people in Arizona are not nearly as high as vaccination rates among people 60 and older. But the fact that younger people are less likely to suffer serious illness from COVID-19 means the chances for a repeat of Memorial Day 2020 are slim, he said.

“Vaccination rates of people in their 20s and 30s is not great, it would be great to have it higher,” Humble said. “But the fact it’s not higher doesn’t mean we’ll have a public health crisis as a result of Memorial Day behavior.”

Amy Bolton, spokesperson with the Maricopa County Joint Information Center, which distributes COVID-19 information, agreed, saying that with almost half of eligible Maricopa County residents vaccinated, typical Memorial Day celebrations will be safer this year.

“While we have much to celebrate this Memorial Day, we should continue practices that have kept us safer this past year including washing your hands, staying home when sick and wearing a mask if not fully vaccinated or at high risk for severe COVID-19,” Bolton said.

Brooke Newman brooke rae noo-mun (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Brooke Newman is a master’s journalism student at Arizona State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in justice studies in 2021. She has worked in the Cronkite News D.C. bureau as a social justice and politics reporter and has written for The Arizona Republic, AZBigMedia and The State Press.