June 12, 2020

Coronavirus cases up, hospitals alarmed, cooling centers

Plus, a Tucson EMT describes what it's like to work in a COVID-19 hot spot.

Nearly a month since Arizona’s stay at home order expired, cases of COVID-19 have continued to climb and resulting headlines from across the country warned that the state is experiencing a surge. For context, we got insight from Dr. Joe Gerald, a researcher at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, who has analyzed data released by the state. Gerald discussed what his findings suggest about the uptick in cases.

“Viral spread is moving faster. These effects are showing up in our hospitals and ICUs. And you know, I think it’s time to raise the alarm and say something very different is happening in Arizona and we need to respond to it urgently,” Gerald said.

According to Gerald, the state’s testing blitz earlier this month contributed to an initial rise in the number of cases reported. But despite testing rates leveling off in the past few weeks, cases continue to increase at a sharper rate.

“It’s gone up fairly quickly and so it seems to be different from a testing effect. This appears to be real and that community transmission is on the rise,” Gerald said. “A second wave is here. We never actually really fully recovered from the first one. We more or less hit the pause button.”


With the increasing number of coronavirus cases, hospital leaders in Arizona raised their concerns with Christopher Conover. Banner Health Systems recently announced it is nearing capacity for its ICU beds at facilities statewide and seeing greater demand for its services.

“We do load leveling in the Tucson market between our two facilities, the South Campus and the Tucson Campus, we’re able to share and pull resources to maximize our ability to care for our community,” said Dr. Gordon Carr, Chief Medical Officer at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson.

“Hospitals are not limitless resources. It is limited and we need to make sure we contain the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” said Arizona Hospital Association President Ann-Marie Alameddin. She said a shortage of testing supplies means hospitals sometimes wait days for labs to confirm a COVID-19 patient has recovered.

“And if you are unable to discharge patients, you begin to take up that very crucial capacity in the system.”

At a news conference this week, Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledged the rise in cases, which he attributed to an increase in testing. He said ICU bed capacity remains adequate and the state could provide 600 additional “surge beds” but it is unnecessary for now.


An EMT in Tucson who recently returned from assisting frontline workers in New Jersey described what it’s like to work in one of the pandemic’s hot spots. New Jersey has the second highest number of confirmed cases in the country. Alex de León discussed his deployment to the city of Elizabeth to work with its fire department.

“I’ve never really been scared to do my job before, I think until this,” de León said. “It felt like the city of Elizabeth itself was sick. I don’t know how else to put it, but there’s just this thing in the air. This creeping presence in the community that was just, I don’t know, creepy is the only word I can think of.”

He described a large refrigeration truck used to store an overflow of bodies after a hospital’s morgue became full. The truck was not far from where first responders parked their ambulances.

“Every time we run on a call, you just go by that truck. And it definitely keeps things in perspective,” de León said. “You see that and you know that you’re there for a very serious reason.”


Pima County reopened its libraries as restrictions related to COVID-19 began to ease. Branches often provide crucial services within neighborhoods. Tony Paniagua reports on new safety protocols implemented by the system that limit access to some of those services.


Safety precautions imposed by businesses and organizations in response to the pandemic have also cut off access to spaces that have doubled as cooling centers during Arizona’s summers. People who are homeless have traditionally relied on these centers to escape triple-digit temperatures. To expand access, the city of Tucson recently teamed up with the Salvation Army to bolster the nonprofit’s Operation Chill Out efforts. The city’s Housing and Community Development Director Liz Morales explained what services they hope to roll out later this month.

Arizona 360
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