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Ducey rejects new COVID-19 limit in Az, as analysts foresee swamped hospitals

White House says coronavirus pandemic is 'dangerous situation,' Arizona still in red zone as infections skyrocket

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey again rejected calls for tougher statewide COVID-19 restrictions Wednesday in the face of what experts called a pending “catastrophe,” opting instead for more funding for nurses and more pleas for personal responsibility.

Ducey also ordered insurance companies to cover the costs of COVID-19 vaccinations, which could arrive in the state as soon as this month, and called on residents and local governments to more strictly enforce their current mitigation protocols in lieu of new restrictions.

“I believe we should instead focus on accountability and enforcing the rules we have in place now,” Ducey said.

Related: 'We are in a very dangerous place': White House reports Arizona still in COVID 'red zone'

That was not the feeling of health experts and hospital officials, who wrote that it is “imperative that the governor’s office implement enforceable measures to limit the spread and save the lives of Arizonans.”

“Multiple predictive models … all are in agreement with data that shows we are approaching a life-threatening COVID-19 surge. Certain parts of the state are already at capacity,” said the letter from officials of Banner Health, Dignity Health, Health Choice Arizona, Honor Health, Mayo Clinic, Tucson Medical Center, Valleywise Health and Yavapai Regional Medical Center.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force warned governors in private reports this week that “the COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high” and said virus-mitigation efforts in many states are still not strong enough.

“We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity,” the new reports, dated Nov. 29, read. “A further post-Thanksgiving surge will compromise COVID patient care, as well as medical care overall.”

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The letter from Arizona health leaders to the governor included a “strong recommendation” that Ducey halt indoor dining, group athletic activities, and gatherings of more than 25 people, impose a 10 p.m. curfew and outline plans for next steps that include provisions for closing as well as reopenings, as the situation changes.

The restrictions can be implemented without an elaborate enforcement plan, the letter said, since “strong messaging from the governor’s office and ADHS (the Arizona Department of Health Services) will create a sense of urgency.”

Ducey delivered a message Wednesday, but not the restrictions that health officials asked for.

He did restrict gatherings to fewer than 50 people, unless local government officials determine that sufficient safeguards are in place to allow for a larger gatherings. That was one of three executive orders that take effect tomorrow, along with an order making it easier for restaurants to get permits for outdoor dining and another requiring health insurers to pick up the entire cost of a patient’s COVID-19 vaccination.

Ducey also announced the allocation of $60 million to hospitals around the state to help them hire nursing staff that will be needed to cope with the surge in COVID-19 patients, a surge that is expected to exceed hospital bed capacity in a matter of weeks. The funding comes on top of $25 million allocated for the same purpose in November.

“This significant investment will allow us to provide an additional 500 nurses through the end of the month with additional staffing to last through January,” Ducey said. “It will ensure our hospitals can care for those who need it, and that the existing staff in our hospitals are properly compensated for their dedication and commitment.”

But Ducey and Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the state health department, said there is no denying that numbers now are headed in the wrong direction.

“Last week, the percent positivity was 15% and this week we’re trending higher,” Christ said. “Hospitals continue to see increased demand and increased usage of inpatient and ICU (intensive care unit) beds. My team is working with public health, hospital officials and through public education to address this at all angles.”

That help cannot come fast enough for a team of researchers from the state’s universities, who warned in a memo Friday of a looming “catastrophe” if action is not immediately taken to slow the spread of the virus.

That memo was cited Wednesday by Dr. Joshua LaBaer of Arizona State University’s BioDesign Institute, who discussed the growing alarm over the state’s hospital capacity.

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“On Monday, 11 of the 82 ICU’s in the state were full,” LaBaer said. “The model also predicts that in about two weeks, hospitals will be full. By the new year or early in the new year, there will be probably enough COVID cases to fill hospitals, and of course that means there will be fewer beds available for people with other illnesses.”

Arizona added 3,840 new cases Wednesday and 52 deaths, bringing total infections to 340,979 and deaths to 6,739. The average number of daily new cases over the past week is more than 4,300, the highest infection rate since the first case was confirmed in Arizona in late January.

The state health department’s data dashboard said COVID-19 patients were taking up 642 ICU beds in the state Tuesday, 37% of the total. Other patients took up 932 ICU beds, or 53% of the total, on Tuesday, leaving just 10% of ICU beds available.

The White House task force also issued some of its strongest warnings yet to individual Americans, even though the reports to governors are not made public. It said anyone over age 65 should not enter indoor public spaces with unmasked people and should have groceries and medications delivered. It also said that people under 40 who gathered with others outside their households for Thanksgiving should assume they became infected, isolate themselves and be tested immediately.

“You are dangerous to others,” the task force said.

LaBaer said winter is typically busier for Arizona hospitals than summer months, which is “going to put some additional stress” on the response to COVID-19.

The response will also be hampered by the fact that COVID-19 cases are surging across the country. Arizona was able to cope with a summer surge of COVID-19 “by bringing nurses in from out of state,” LaBaer said, but that will not be possible now.

“Nurses are heavily occupied elsewhere in the country, so it will be very hard to get them to come to Arizona at this point,” he said. “A hospital bed is not a hospital bed unless there’s a nurse who can tend to that bed.”

One of the biggest concerns for health experts is the “really rapid rise in per capita number of cases” in rural counties, LaBaer said.

In a University of Arizona report this week, Dr. Daniel Derksen said that Apache, Navajo, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties all had infection rates and death rates per 100,000 residents that were well above the state’s rate – and in some cases, above the national rate.

Derksen, director of the Arizona Center for Rural Health, said those numbers threaten health care across the board.

“If you’re in a motor vehicle accident, you have a heart attack, you have a stroke … you still need that capacity to take care of people,” Derksen said. “It’s very difficult to be in that position of a doctor or a nurse, trying to make that triage decision about who gets care and who doesn’t because every single bed and cubicle and ICU bed is full.”

Derksen said a sense of urgency is needed, something the hospitals’ letter said needs to be paired with action within the next 72 hours.

“Please help us, as the healthcare leaders of your state, to bridge this gap until the vaccine can be widely available to the public,” the letter read.

Arizona still in White House 'red zone' for COVID-19

Arizona appeared on the red zone lists this week for all three factors: number of cases, test positivity, and COVID-19 deaths. The state has now been included in the White House's red zone report for four straight weeks.

Tuesday, as more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases were reported in Arizona, the Tucson City Council voted to impose a nightly curfew to slow the outbreak. The 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew begins Friday night, and includes a slew of exceptions.

"People are safer at home," said Mayor Regina Romero. "The governor has said that, public health experts have said that."

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More than 10,000 new coronavirus cases in Arizona were reported Tuesday by state officials, and another 3,840 confirmed infected people were added to the count Wednesday morning. More than 6,700 people have died from the disease in Arizona, with more than 41,000 total infections in Pima County and nearly 700 dead from COVID-19 here. Nearly 1,000 new cases were added to Pima's total on Tuesday, and another 510 on Wednesday.

52 new deaths were added to Arizona's count on Wednesday.

Statewide there have been at least 340,979 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 822 new infections Monday and an additional 10,322 new cases reported Tuesday as data was processed after the long holiday weekend, according to the daily report from the Arizona Department of Public Health Services. Those figures were added to Wednesday, with another 3,840 new cases confirmed. More than 6,600 Arizonans have died from the disease. More than 34,000 new infections have been reported over the past week, including 944 in Pima County just on Tuesday and more than 500 on Wednesday. Arizona has been in the coronavirus "red zone" for weeks, according to the secret White House task force reports that have been leaked to the press.

Last week, that White House report, which was provided to Gov. Doug Ducey but not released to the public by state officials, declared that "Arizona is in full resurgence and must increase mitigation back to the summer interventions. Hospitalizations are rising rapidly and Arizona must mitigate to flatten the curve."

“In many areas of the USA, state mitigation efforts remain inadequate, resulting in sustained transmission,” the task force said. “All states and counties must flatten the curve now.”

A group of University of Arizona experts said that the numbers of COVID-19 infections here will "likely exceed twice the prior (summer) peak in the next two weeks," putting local hospitals into a crisis.

"Stricter measures are our only path" to slowing the spread of the deadly virus, Judy Rich, president of Tucson Medical Center, told the Council on Tuesday. "If we don't take actions today, the crisis will grow, and result in unnecessary illness and deaths."

Ducey has repeatedly signaled he doesn't intend to impose any additional restrictions as the pandemic again spikes in the state. He has dodged questions about what level of new infections and deaths would prompt him to take measures such as returning to the modest "stay at home" order he announced earlier this year when the COVID-19 outbreak here was at lower levels.

The White House reports this week again urged states to do more rapid testing. The task force also urged seniors to get tested immediately if they gathered with others for Thanksgiving and start experiencing symptoms: “If you are over 65 or have significant medical conditions and you gathered outside of your immediate household, you are at a significant risk for serious COVID infection; if you develop any symptoms, you must be tested immediately as the majority of therapeutics work best early in infection,” the reports read.

"I know this may cause hardship for some businesses in our community," Romero said of the Tucson curfew. "More support will be needed, and I urge both Gov. Ducey and Congress to act as soon as possible to provide additional economic relief."

"We've waited and waited and waited for the governor, and despite a huge surge we have not seen any meaningful action from Gov. Ducey," Romero said, noting that Ducey declined to speak with her about the move, and that he has refused her phone calls since March.

Last week, Pima County officials declared a voluntary nightly curfew at 10 p.m., but Ducey has blocked counties from instituting mandatory curfew measures.

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The Board of Supervisors is set to meet Friday to discuss the possibility of instituting a county-wide mandatory curfew in the face of Ducey's orders.

The Center for Public Integrity’s Liz Essley Whyte and TucsonSentinel.com’s Dylan Smith contributed to this report.


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Gov. Doug Ducey announced new restrictions on gatherings and new funding for nurses, but brushed off calls for restrictive measures like a curfew called for by medical experts, who said the state is on the verge of a catastrophe.

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