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Arizona reopens, and COVID-19 hospitalizations surge

TUCSON — With restaurants, bars, gyms and barber shops swinging open their doors across Arizona, at least one epidemiologist is not surprised at the state’s dramatic increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The surge is exactly what University of Arizona assistant professor Purnima Madhivanan thought the state would see three weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey dropped many statewide restrictions.

“It’s basically following what we had expected as we loosened stay-at-home orders,” Madhivana said Thursday. “People decided to go out and mingle; we saw increased cases. Now they are becoming symptomatic, and we are seeing the hospitalizations.”

On May 15, Ducey, a staunch supporter of President Trump who has largely followed the president’s lead on opening the economy, allowed a statewide stay-at-home order to expire. Since then many businesses have opened, though many have remained closed and many continue to maintain social distance for customers.

In the three weeks since then, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has jumped dramatically. On May 15, 789 COVID patients were in hospitals statewide, and by Wednesday that number had jumped to 1,291, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Also Wednesday, 82% of adult hospital beds were filled, including 78% of the state’s 1,658 adult intensive care beds, the state reported.

Hospitals are ready for more patients and have “surge plans” in place, said the Health Care Alliance of Arizona, an advocacy group representing some of the state’s biggest health care providers, including Banner Health, Dignity Health and Tenet Healthcare.

“We have available bed capacity and surge plans are in place to continue to serve the people of Arizona,” the group said. “We are well-prepared to manage an increase in patient volume.”

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The state reported 1,412 new cases and 32 deaths Thursday, bringing the statewide totals to 31,264 cases and 1,127 deaths. Nationwide the pandemic has killed more than 116,000, with 834 deaths reported Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least eight other states have reported increased hospitalizations for COVID-19 since restrictions were loosened de facto over Memorial Day weekend: Texas, California, Oregon, Utah, North and South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the rolling 7-day average of new cases is increasing in 21 states.

Yet despite the continuing rise in cases and deaths, concern for the spread of the coronavirus is slipping in Arizona, according to an OH Predictive poll taken June 2-3 and released Wednesday.

That poll of 600 likely voters showed 59% were extremely or moderately concerned about the spread of the virus, with a sharp difference between Democrats and Republicans. Among Democrats, 85% were extremely or moderately concerned, up from 82% in a similar poll in April. Just 32% of Republicans were concerned last week, down from 55% in April, the poll showed.

Forty-nine percent of Arizonans polled think the economy is opening too quickly, while 34% think authorities are acting too slowly. Fifty-nine percent strongly or somewhat approve of Ducey’s management of the crisis, a number that hasn’t changed since OH Predictive’s April poll.

Madhivanan is concerned that Arizonans are not taking the threat seriously, not wearing masks and not keeping distance among themselves. She doesn’t think another closure order is the answer, because people are less likely to accept it a second time around.

People need to be reminded that hand washing and other measures work, she said.

“We know they work, and we have seen them work, but you’re not seeing those things being implemented here in our communities,” Madhivanan said. “We have tools. We’re just not using them.”

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