A recent surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Arizona has health experts alarmed that a crisis is just around the corner.
“Every indicator is pointing in the wrong direction,” Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association and a former state health director, told BuzzFeed News. He described the situation as akin to when the “check engine” light is on in a car. “Something bad is going to happen if you don’t do something different,” Humble said.
Arizona is one of more than a dozen states — many in the West — that have experienced a sharp rise in new infections. The state has seen an average of 1,021 coronavirus cases a day over the last week, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis, up more than 200% compared to Memorial Day. Over the past two weeks, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Arizona has risen by about 50% — currently at more than 1,200, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.
More than half of the new cases in the state are in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located. Looking ahead to potential cases in the future, the state’s capital has also been the site of continuing protests against police brutality sweeping the nation. And on Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that Arizona would be one of the planned locations for his restarted campaign rallies, which went on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Arizona has also seen a dramatic expansion in testing capacity, experts say that doesn’t fully explain the state’s case spike or its steady increase in hospitalizations. “It’s not from increased testing, it’s more from community spread,” Humble said about the surge.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lifted the state’s stay-at-home order on May 15, earlier than many health experts had recommended. State officials also did not put in place a tiered reopening plan, nor did they require widespread mask use or set up a system that would fine or punish businesses that did not obey social distancing measures. Gyms, pools, sports leagues, and restaurants have all been open for the last month.
Politicians and public health experts have condemned Ducey's decision to lift the restrictions.
“When Governor Ducey lifted Arizona’s stay-at-home order on May 15th, many worried it was too soon,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, the ranking member of the Arizona House of Representatives’ Health and Human Services Committee, by email. “Now, three weeks later, with cases and deaths spiking and hospitals sounding the alarm, it’s obvious we were not ready.”
New cases and hospitalizations began to rise just over a week after the stay-at-home order was lifted.
Arizona has seen a resurgence in transmissions that “appears to be picking up steam,” said Joe Gerald, an associate professor and health services researcher at the University of Arizona. “It’s pretty clear that opening as early as we did contributed to the problem today.”
The governor is standing by his decisions. On Wednesday, Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey's chief of staff, claimed on Twitter that the state has sufficient hospital capacity, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and increased testing. "We are not in a crisis situation," he wrote.
But Cara Christ, the state’s health director, last week directed hospitals to “fully activate your facility emergency plan” and consider reducing or suspending elective surgeries in response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to a June 6 letter obtained by the Arizona Republic.
Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital system, tweeted on Monday that its intensive care units were filling up with patients sick with COVID-19 and that the system had “recently reached capacity for patients receiving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment.” The number of patients on ventilators in Banner Health hospitals had quadrupled since May 15, the hospital said.
Dignity Health hospitals are “a week or two away from that,” according to a cardiologist in Phoenix who asked to remain anonymous.
“It’s always an uneasy feeling that we have to come in without the proper protective equipment,” the cardiologist said. He added that the equipment, such as N95 respirator masks, is kept under lock and key at multiple Phoenix hospitals and sparingly handed out, so he’s resorted to reaching out to companies like Honeywell to try to secure masks for himself and his colleagues.
“Healthcare providers and hospitals in Arizona are issuing dire warnings,” Butler said. “I sure hope Governor Ducey is listening.”
This post has been updated to include a statement from Gov. Doug Ducey's chief of staff.