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How Arizona became such a COVID-19 hot spot

Coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising across the U.S., but Arizona’s downward spiral stands apart. Health experts there warn that if the state’s residents and leaders don't change policies and behavior, a bad situation will escalate into something even worse. And some of those suffering from the disease and losing loved ones say the government is to blame. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID continue to rise nationwide, Arizona's downward spiral stands out.

    Here is Stephanie Sy with a closer look at how inaction by state leaders and residents could soon lead to things spinning out of control.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Early hopes that the extreme heat would keep the Valley of the Sun safe from COVID-19 are gone. For weeks now, the greater Phoenix area has reported among the highest rate of COVID-positive tests of any place on the planet.

    At Fire Station 25 in Phoenix, which sits in the city's zip code with the most cases, about half the calls it fields these days are from suspected COVID patients. And the department itself has had dozens of firefighters fall ill.

  • Rob McDade:

    Right now, I really believe we're in the middle of it, or it's going to keep rising. We have built everything out to a doomsday scenario of staffing. It's all hands on deck right now for the Phoenix Fire Department.

  • Quinn Snyder:

    It's gotten to the point where we have truly hit saturation.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Emergency physician Quinn Snyder works in Mesa, Arizona.

  • Dr. Quinn Snyder:

    It's really hard to watch people be out and about and exhibiting dangerous behaviors, knowing that there's a good chance that I might be seeing them in my emergency department. And, frankly, in a week or two, I might not have room for them in my hospital.

    He got sick very quickly. I had never seen him this ill before

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Among the more than 2,500 Arizonans who have now died of COVID-19 is Mark Anthony Urquiza, Kristin Urquiza's beloved father. She now lives in San Francisco.

  • Kristin Urquiza:

    At first responded really well to the treatment. He had a positive spirit. He kept on saying, "Oh, I'm going to be home next week." Shortly thereafter, he stopped talking to us. And I was like, "Mom, something's wrong."

    It took several hours for us to get a doctor on the phone who then shared with us, "Yes, your dad's condition is deteriorating, and we need to put him on a ventilator."

    And when I heard the word ventilator leave the doctor's mouth, I collapsed and just said, no, no, no.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kristin's dad died on June 30. Since then, she's been critical of Arizona's Governor Doug Ducey's handling of the pandemic.

  • Kristin Urquiza:

    My dad was a supporter of the governor, as well as the president, and was following their advice.

    So whenever, you know, I would call him and say, "Dad, this is still a crisis, it's not safe to be out there," his response was, "Well, Kristin, why would the governor say it was safe if it wasn't safe?"

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How do you think we got to this point in Arizona?

  • Quinn Snyder:

    I think mistakes were made at many points in the pandemic. The governor and the director of AZDHS decided to lift those restrictions in mid-May, against the advice of the medical community at large, including myself.

    I felt like it was it was a bad idea.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Governor Ducey lifted the more than month-long stay-at-home order in early May, one day before a visit by President Trump to Arizona.

    The governor announced an accelerated plan to reopen businesses, including restaurant dining rooms. At the same time, the act of wearing masks was becoming highly politicized. A rally of anti-mask protesters took place in Phoenix on July 4.

    Last month, a Scottsdale city councilman, Guy Phillips, had this moment:

  • Guy Phillips:

    I can't breathe.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The councilman then dramatically takes his mask off in indignation.

  • Guy Phillips:

    Insanity.

  • Gov. Doug Ducey:

    I want to see every Arizonan wear a mask.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Even though the governor has not implemented a statewide mask mandate, he pointed out this week that nearly 90 percent of Arizona communities now have local mask ordinances.

  • Gov. Doug Ducey:

    There's strength in numbers, and the more numbers that are making the better decisions, the better off we will all be.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Corey Woods is the new mayor of Tempe, recently recovered from a mild case of COVID. He wants to strengthen local enforcement of mask wearing in his first days in office.

  • Corey Woods:

    When it comes to masks and social distancing, We're not trying to harass, you know, and frustrate residents who want to spend money in our local economy. What we're trying to do is to really stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a second shutdown.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As cases began to surge last month, the governor re-closed bars, nightclubs, and gyms. But restaurants were allowed to stay open, operating at half-capacity.

  • Corey Woods:

    There have been folks like myself that have really begun to press the governor and say, look, we have to talk about maybe going to outside dining only. The reality is just we do know more now than we did two or three months ago.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But dozens of businesses, including this chain of gyms, are defying state orders and suing to stay open.

  • Tom Hatten:

    We are not the cause of the coronavirus spike, period.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Quinn Snyder cautions that if pre-pandemic life is allowed to continue, the virus will wipe them out.

  • Quinn Snyder:

    There's this continuing fallacy that I find among the leadership in many states across America, and certainly in Arizona, and that people think that you can somehow bluff this virus.

    This virus doesn't care about your feelings. This virus doesn't care about your business. We are going to lose if we continue to try to fix the economic crisis without first fixing the public health crisis.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Meanwhile, as Arizona tries to gain a handle on the situation, demand for testing has skyrocketed, with people waiting in line for hours in triple-digit heat.

  • Raymundo Hernadez:

    Shoot. Yes, it's been like six hours now?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Besides the long lines for drive-through tests, some clinics require referrals, and people without symptoms are having a hard time getting appointments.

    Without enough testing and quick results, it's impossible to figure out who has been infected and should be quarantined, especially because many COVID-infected people may not show symptoms, but may be contagious.

    Will Humble is the former Arizona state health director.

  • Will Humble:

    If the laboratory test comes back seven to eight days later, which has been the trend recently, then your contact tracers are finding the case after they have already begun to recover and exposed people in the workplace and in their personal lives.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The federal government stepped in this week to add testing capacity. Hundreds of nurses from out of state have been contracted to staff the packed hospitals. But, for many, it's too late.

    Forty-two-year-old Ricardo Aguirre, his wife and two young children caught the virus, and his parents are still sick.

  • Ricardo Aguirre:

    So, where did we get it? I have no idea. But I do blame the government for the new cases that are happening, because Arizona is the number one hot spot right now. The governor is not doing his part, from my point of view.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kristin Urquiza agrees.

  • Kristin Urquiza:

    The speaking out has really been oxygen to my purpose to continue to fight for my dad. These decisions have real life impacts. My dad's life mattered. And this, I believe, could have been prevented.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mark Anthony Urquiza lived in Maryvale, a predominately minority area in Phoenix that has borne a disproportionate cost in lives and livelihoods in the pandemic.

    He was laid to rest on July 8.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Phoenix.

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