Health care and education officials are expressing increasing optimism about their COVID-19 outlooks going forward as state data shows more than 38% of Gilbert residents have been fully vaccinated through June 16.

Hospital officials in Gilbert said there are fewer COVID-19 patients in local hospital beds since winter highs as the vaccine became widespread through the spring. Still, they are keeping an eye on vaccination numbers while local doctors express confidence in the efficacy and safety of the vaccine.

In Gilbert, 52.3% of the eligible residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, ahead of the county’s 50% of the population, according to data from the Maricopa County Public Health Department.

“Definitely we are [and] would like to see getting closer to the 70%, which was taught for the longest time about the herd immunity,” said Dr. Omar Gonzalez, an infectious disease consultant and hospital epidemiologist for Dignity Health Arizona, which operates Mercy Gilbert Medical Center. “Doing our part as citizens, trying to reach that number should be a goal for everyone.”

Herd immunity is when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making spread to those who are not immune unlikely. Gonzalez said he is hopeful the region will reach herd immunity but was unable to say when or if it will happen, expressing concern that vaccine hesitancy will be a barrier to getting there.

Meanwhile, the three school districts that serve Gilbert have lifted their mask mandates, and the opening of vaccinations in Arizona to children ages 12 to 15, which began May 13, have made district officials increasingly bullish about relaxing protocols for the fall semester.

Doctors advocate for vaccine

While optimistic, Gonzalez said he would still like to see many more people vaccinated.

“We have seen that in some communities that there is some hesitancy on receiving the vaccine,” he said. “I can speak for the Hispanic community that has been one of the groups that has been impacted the most in the state of Arizona. Even with that, there’s still a lot of vaccine hesitancy. We want reach out to all the communities, ... encouraging to go and get vaccinated.”

State data backs Gonzalez’s concerns. While the Hispanic community makes up 31.7% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona Department of Health Services reports Hispanics make up 14.3% of those vaccinated.

Gonzales said he sees many people in the community and among his patients asking questions about the vaccinations, which he said is normal for patients. Nonetheless, he said he is confident in the vaccine, and is working to educate patients about their effectiveness.

Gonzalez said many of the concerns had to do with the new technology, called mRNA, used COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and the fast tracking of development and distribution of the vaccine under the U.S. government-initiated Operation Warp Speed. That public-private partnership compressed a normally 73-month process into 14 months.

But Gonzalez said the technology has been studied for more than 10 years and no phases of vaccine development were skipped under Operation Warp Speed.

“The reason why we went really fast, it was a necessity for the community and the population to control this infection,” he said.

Likewise, Phoenix Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Gary Kirkilas, the spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatricians, said he encourages parents to get their children ages 12-15 vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control approved the Pfizer vaccine for administration to 12-15 year olds May 12. Kirkilas said estimates have Pfizer applying and being granted emergency use authorization for ages 2-11 in September and those and 6 months to 2 years old in November.

Kirkilas said parents sometimes ask him why get children vaccinated when their symptoms are typically mild and have low risks when it comes to COVID-19.

“The truth is that the COVID is not completely benign,” he said. “There’s been 30 deaths [of children] here in Arizona, and we also know that kids spread the virus. They can spread it to parents, they can spread it to their teachers, they can spread it to grandparents. And we see things like the multisystem inflammatory syndrome where kids—their immune response to COVID—it’s just goes out of whack, where they even have inflammation in all parts and different organs and require hospitalization.”

Kirkilas said he understands—with a new virus and mRNA technology not having been used in a vaccine before—why some parents would be hesitant to have the vaccine administered to their children, but he believes there is enough data on safety and efficacy of the vaccines, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not give emergency use authorization lightly.

“There is a lot of misinformation and pseudoscience out there,” he said. “So I always tell them, use a trusted source of information. Talk to your pediatrician, talk to a doctor, look at the CDC website, look at unbiased information and make your decision from there.”

Hospitals manage situation

The primary driver that government and other officials cited in 2020 for business shutdowns, mask mandates and other protocols was concern about virus patients overwhelming the health care system. State data in summer and even more so in the winter showed hospitals quite near capacity at peaks.

The peak came Jan. 13 when 93% of the state’s intensive care unit beds were filled, according to AZDHS data, 65% of them by COVID-19 patients.

But hospital officials in Gilbert said they adapted during the pandemic and are optimistic as hospitalizations continue to decline. As of June 16, 78% of ICU beds were filled in the state, but only 7% by COVID-19 patients, according to AZDHS data.

“We’re in great shape from our hospitals’ perspective,” said Mark Slyter, Mercy Gilbert Medical Center president and CEO. “We had our surge earlier on in the year in that January, February time, and it was a real challenge for us. I’m not going to sugar coat that at all. It was a real challenge back then, but we made it through successfully through a lot of community collaboration.”

Slyter said it was helpful that the hospital had experience with surges with Arizona’s traditional influx of winter visitors during flu season. He said the hospital never got to the point where officials thought it would be overrun, but intensive care and some other units were stretched to their limits. He praised his staff for being resilient.

“With everything that we put into place, the staff rose to the occasion,” he said. “Our leaders rose to the occasion to look at the next group of options. And quite frankly, we built out a real robust plan to address the surge and updated all of our surge plans early on in the pandemic And we were able to just work those plans.”

The situation at Banner Gateway Medical Center was slightly different. Lamont Yoder, CEO for Banner Gateway and the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, said the health care network’s Emergency Operations Center, launched March 4, 2020, helped the network manage resources and capacity.

“One strategic decision was to not admit COVID-positive patients to the Banner Gateway campus in order to better keep our immunosuppressed oncology patients safe,” Yoder said. “With all Banner hospitals working together, we were able to coordinate care for all COVID and non-COVID patients across the Valley.”

Rapid testing from Sonora Quest Labs made that possible, Yoder said, as patients who tested positive for COVID-19 were transferred to another Banner Health hospital. In turn, Banner Gateway accepted non-COVID patients from other hospitals to balance the load. He said during peaks, Banner Gateway safely operated over the hospital’s capacity of non-COVID patients.

Schools look to fall

Kirkilas praised schools’ efforts to manage the pandemic through the implementation of protocols. He said the difficulties of remote learning and changing learning modalities make another case for parents to get their children vaccinated.

Of the three districts that serve Gilbert, only Chandler USD has put protocol plans in place for the fall. The CUSD administration presented its COVID-19 mitigation plan to the governing board during a study session May 12 that called for optional masks for the 2021-22 school year and 3 feet of social distancing where feasible—a change from the 6-foot social distancing guidance in place for this year and required masks for students and staff.

The plan also outlines that the Maricopa County Department of Public Health has the authority to determine if a school closure is necessary due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Field trips may be allowed with school site approval under the plan.

Gilbert Public Schools intends to keep families informed this summer as the district addresses protocols for the fall, spokesperson Dawn Antestenis said.

At Higley USD, District Nurse Jillian Fulton said the district is working with the leadership team to finalize protocols. She said the vaccine will affect those protocols.

“A safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 will help in preventing the COVID-19 infections and lowering the risk of spread,” she said.