Coronavirus is making a comeback in Arizona three weeks after governor lifted stay-at-home order

Gov. Doug Ducey insists "this is not a crisis situation," even as the state's COVID-19 death toll has climbed over 1,000.

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By Vaughn Hillyard and Corky Siemaszko

PHOENIX — Three weeks after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lifted his stay-at-home order, the state has seen a big spike in the number of coronavirus cases.

With nearly 1,100 dead and hospitalizations spiking rapidly, lawmakers and medical professionals are warning there might not be enough emergency room beds to handle what could be a big influx of new cases.

More than 1,500 new cases were reported along with 25 new deaths in the past 24 hours, officials said.

While Ducey has insisted this “is not a crisis situation” and suggested the rise in the number of cases is due to an increase in testing, critics say otherwise and accuse the Republican governor of setting a bad example by not wearing a mask while out in public.

They say that Arizona residents, who initially took the coronavirus threat seriously, have grown lax about social distancing and face coverings, and that the result is a rise in new cases.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey answers a question about coronavirus data at a news conference, in Phoenix on May 28, 2020.Ross D. Franklin / Pool via AP file

“Arizona is not ready for this,” said State Rep. Kelli Butler, the Democrats’ ranking member of the state’s House Health Committee. “Our hospitals are sounding the alarm. We’re hearing that the hospitals lack the ICU capacity needed to deal with this and key equipment needed to treat people.”

Marcy Flanagan, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, echoed Butler’s concern during a press conference last week.

“We’re starting to see some indicators that the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing in Maricopa County and we have enough information to know these increases are not due to just an increase in testing that is occurring,” said Flanagan, whose county includes Phoenix, the fifth most populous city in the country.

During a June 4 press conference, Ducey was asked why Arizona was not making changes as the coronavirus case numbers were rising in the state.

"We are not in a crisis situation,” he said. “If that were to happen, we have available field hospital capacity ... if something were to go in a dramatically elevated position, we'd be prepared in Arizona."

Donna Ferraro cuts and styles Jan Campbell?s hair at Passions Salon during the phased reopening from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in Cave Creek, Arizona on May 11, 2020.Nicole Neri / Reuters file

Ducey's spokesman, Patrick Ptak, said Wednesday they had been anticipating "increased cases in June based on various modeling."

“Alternate care sites are ready for activation if and when we need additional capacity, something that is not necessary at this time," he said. "We've continued to focus on protecting our most vulnerable, including those in nursing homes and long-term care settings.”

Ptak also noted that they've doubled the testing capacity. The result, he said, is "there will continue to be an increase in cases."

Three days ago, though, state Department of Health Director Dr. Cara Christ sent out a letter telling hospitals to prepare for crisis care and to suspend elective surgeries if they start running short of beds. She cited an executive order from Ducey that calls for adding hospital beds first by 25 percent, then by 50 percent.

To date, some 500 patients have already been transferred out of hospitals likeliest to see the biggest influx of coronavirus patients and the state has set up a “surge line” to help balance the patient load at hospitals around the state, state Health Department spokesman Chris Minnick said.

Already, 11 Arizona hospitals have hit ICU capacity, Ann-Marie Alameddin, the president of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said.

“Three weeks ago, the stay-at-home order was lifted and since then, if you look at the streets of Arizona, people are conducting themselves as business-as-usual at times,” she said. “They are not taking the precautions that we are, being socially distanced, wearing masks, making sure they are staying at home when they are sick.”

The result?

“Correspondingly, we’ve seen an increase in cases,” Alameddin said. “We are concerned that this will be an increasing trend in the wrong direction, so we need to make sure Arizonans are doing everything that they can to stop the spread and really mitigate what’s going on in our communities.”

Arizona can do it, she added.

“We flattened the curve and we can do it again,” she said.

Meanwhile, Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital provider, has quadrupled its ventilator use for COVID-19 patients since the state ended its stay-at-home policy May 15.

The rise in coronavirus cases comes as thousands of Arizonans shed their COVID-19 concerns and took part in massive George Floyd protests against police violence where there was virtually no social distancing.

But even before that, Arizona residents had largely abandoned their masks and stopped social distancing, setting the stage for a resurgence of the deadly virus.

“Everywhere you go, people are not wearing masks, not social distancing,” Butler said. “Over Memorial Day, we saw packed bars, packed resorts. People were not taking this seriously.”

And neither is the governor, she added.

“His social media is full of pictures of him meeting people without masks, without social distancing,” Butler said. “I do think that message has to come from the top. And it’s not.”

Vaughn Hillyard reported from Phoenix and Corky Siemaszko reported from New Jersey.