COVID-19 in Arizona: Mayors urge Ducey to impose statewide restrictions

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Gov. Doug Ducey, shown here at a June 23 rally with President Donald Trump in Phoenix, took steps this week to increase COVID-19 testing and impose limits on restaurants, but critics say it is not enough. (Photo courtesy of Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

TUCSON – A day after he imposed new restrictions to curb the steep increase in COVID-19 cases in the state, Gov. Doug Ducey was still coming under fire Friday for not doing enough.

Mayors of Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Tempe and Tolleson said in a letter to the governor that they were “deeply concerned with the exponential rise” in COVID-19 cases in the state and called on Ducey to implement stronger, statewide restrictions.

In a conference call organized Friday by Protect Our Care, to discuss the rising number of cases in the state, Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez expressed frustration at the “complete and utter lack of leadership” he said is coming from the Ducey administration.

And Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in broadcast interviews Thursday and Friday to say that without statewide restrictions, people who travel around the state are going to “come home and stress a health care system that’s already hurting.”

Calls seeking comment from Ducey’s office were not immediately returned Friday.

But the comments come as a new poll shows Ducey has the lowest ranking among governors for his handling of the coronavirus. Ducey was also the only governor in the nationwide poll by the COVID-19 Consortium to rank below President Donald Trump, with a 32% approval rating compared to Trump’s 34%.

They also come as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state rose by 4,221 and the number of virus-related deaths grew by 44.

Faced with the spiraling numbers, Ducey on Thursday ordered dine-in restaurants to cap seating at half their capacity and he imposed new COVID-19 reporting requirements on state hospitals. He also announced agreements with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and Arizona State University that should result in thousands of more tests per day in the state.

But the mayors said it’s not enough for Ducey to encourage people to stay home and catch up on Netflix as he did Thursday. They called for a statewide requirement that people wear masks in public settings, for increased testing and an expansion of contact tracing, among other requests.

“Our economy will not recover until we are able to slow the spread and rebuild consumer confidence,” the letter said. “The longer we wait to act, the longer and more severe the blow to our economy will be, the longer it will take to safely send our children back to school, and more lives will be needlessly lost.”

In the Friday conference call, Arizona Public Health Association Executive Director Will Humble credited the Ducey administration for taking the right steps early in the pandemic. But Humble, the former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the state moved too quickly to lift restrictions in May, going from “phase zero to phase 3 in one day,” and it’s paying the price now.

“There were so many things that didn’t happen in early June, and the warning signs were there,” Humble said.

Valadez was more blunt.

“I plead with our governor to finally get his head out of the sand and look around,” he said.

As of Sunday, July 12, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 122,467 cases of COVID-19 and 2,237 deaths in the state. It said 892,480 tests for COVID-19 have been completed in public and private labs in Arizona, and 11.8% of tests have come back positive for the virus that causes the disease.

Refrigerated trucks sought to supplement morgues

With morgues at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office and at an Abrazo Health location nearing capacity, officials are looking to contract for refrigerated trucks to handle any overflow, Gallego said.

ABC15 reported Friday that Gallego did not identify the Abrazo facility, but said she was “heartbroken” by the need to even consider supplemental space.

“It is very scary out here. I wish we had given mayors the authority to act earlier,” Gallego said in a separate interview with MSNBC.

In a statement to ABC15, Abrazo Health confirmed that it has ordered refrigerated storage space, but only as a backup in case of emergency. “Abrazo hospitals currently have adequate morgue space,” the statement said, adding that ordering refrigerated storage is merely part of its emergency planning.

Expanded testing starts Saturday in West Valley

Free COVID-19 testing begins Saturday in the West Valley, the first step in expanded testing unveiled by Ducey Thursday.

The governor’s office said the testing is part of a partnership between the state and Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, which recently developed a saliva-based test for the coronavirus. The governor’s office said it has committed $12.7 million to expand testing sites and reach as many as 100,000 more Arizonans.

Saturday’s tests will be by appointment only. People wishing to get tested can apply on the AzDHS infectious disease site.

Heat could be a killer – but not of COVID-19

Early hopes that hot weather could suppress the spread of COVID-19 as it does other viruses have been turned on their heads, according to a report in Vox.

Some medical experts now worry that hot weather will drive people indoors, where they are more likely to be exposed to the virus in an enclosed space. It comes as temperatures in Arizona are regularly climbing well above 100 degrees.

“It’s so hot in the Southwest U.S. that people are not outside. They’re being driven inside, so then you have all the issues of aerosol transmission and recycled air, a lot of which honestly we don’t fully understand yet” said Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University.

Reading and writing and politics

A Trump administration campaign to get schools to reopen for in-person classes as usual this fall got the backing of House conservatives this week, including Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, Cronkite News reported.

Biggs, the chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said at a Capitol event Thursday it “would be more harmful to keep children locked out of schools and less harmful and less risky for children to go back to schools.”

But while President Donald Trump and his supporters insist that keeping kids at home is “extremely harmful,” educators overwhelmingly say the real harm would be to reopen without proper safeguards against COVID-19 in place.

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said in a statement Thursday that while everyone wants to see students back in classrooms, “we cannot ignore the severity of COVID-19 in our state and how that impacts adults and children alike in our school communities.”

How to help

When schools shifted to online teaching in the spring, it highlighted the digital divide in the state, with many families struggling with the ability to get their kids online to continue their classes.

The Arizona Commerce Authority and the Arizona Department of Education are working to change that this fall, when many schools might still be teaching online, with a mobile hotspot donation drive. Private or public organizations with surplus or unused mobile hotspot devices can donate them to the agencies, who will match the devices with families in need. To donate a device, fill out the form here.

Borderlands Reporter, Phoenix

Frankie McLister is an undergraduate student at the Cronkite School with a certificate in International Business that he received while studying in Seville, Spain. His interests include reporting bilingually on global stories, along with anything that has to do with travel, tech and the Native American communities.