A year after first COVID-19 patient, Arizona is open - defying science, frontline healthcare workers

COVID-19 coronavirus
Posted at 5:08 PM, Jan 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 13:02:36-05

PHOENIX — In the year since Arizona confirmed its first case of the coronavirus, the state remains open for business.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and Dr. Cara Christ, Director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), have defied the advice of scientists and pleas from overburdened healthcare providers for stronger mitigation. The daily death count is in the hundreds, 206 on this one-year anniversary, and intensive care beds are at a premium. Even the good news comes with qualifiers.

“Hospitalizations are down 30%,” ABC15 data analyst Garrett Archer reports in his January 26 breakdown of the state’s metrics. “However, important to note that a rise in intubations means we are not out of the woods. Expect higher death numbers to continue into next week. Week-over-week case numbers are leveling out. They are down, but only by 4%.”

Patient #1 was a member of the Arizona State University community who had recently returned from travel to Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the illness at the time. The case was initially identified on January 22, 2020 and confirmed four days later on January 26. In the year to come, Arizona would become a world hotspot not once, but twice.

ABC15 is marking the anniversary with this report, looking back at what did and didn’t happen from a public policy and healthcare policy perspective.

As community spread took off in February, the state leaders were forced to act. In March, Governor Ducey put in place his version of a "Stay at Home” order, extending it until mid-May, immediately before the first surge.

In the late spring and early part of the summer, the state would be touted as a model for what was working in controlling the spread. However, by July, with restrictions relaxed, cases spiked. Arizona was a hotspot for the first time, ranked number one in the world in a New York Times analysis published July 7.

“What stands out to me is that it took too long to do that intervention in June, and that’s partially what led to the July crisis,” said Will Humble, the state’s former public health director and one of several health and policy experts who spoke to ABC15 about the past year. “…the success of that intervention, the success of closing the bars, nightclubs, and having the restaurants go back to takeout was dramatic.”

That success wasn’t sustained.

By late fall and with the holidays approaching, substantial growth in cases emerged, first slowly and then with force. In December, a University of Arizona associate professor warned that Arizona's worsening COVID-19 surge was headed toward a crisis in the coming weeks.

"We have now all but locked in a major humanitarian crisis during the Christmas–New Year holiday with hundreds of preventable deaths per week,” wrote Joe Gerald.

Gerald warned that by Christmas, Arizona would experience more than 500 deaths a week.

His prediction did not become fully realized until mid-January, when all deaths were accounted. He referenced a case fatality rate of roughly 1.5%. Looking at the numbers, Arizona had surpassed those projections with more than 800 deaths a week for multiple weeks of December. By January 4 , Arizona was the world’s hot spot for a second time.

“Certainly, it’s encouraging to get some of the predictions correct, but if those don’t actually translate into policy changes, then I’m not sure what it was worth,” said Gerald, who worked seven days a week for months to warn officials of what’s to come.

“There’s no question that many Arizonans were infected and died whose infections and deaths could have been prevented,” said Gerald, who told ABC15 he felt ignored when no new mitigation measures were put in place. .

Data experts, public health experts, and healthcare workers across Arizona have been calling for more mitigation measures for months.

In a letter sent last week to Governor Ducey, frontline physicians called for more to be done to slow the spread of coronavirus. Top doctors and leaders from 16 hospitals joined to ask Ducey to "institute proven, enforceable, enhanced mitigation efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19."

"Plainly stated, these patients are sicker, and more are dying from the virus," the physicians said in the letter.

“We should be reducing the number of deaths, we should be reducing our caseloads, so that patients are able to have a fighting chance of surviving this disease,” said family care physician Dr. Andrew Carroll, who has worked surge shifts to help overwhelmed hospitals with staffing shortages.

While the call for restrictions continue, the state’s leadership has shifted its focus to vaccinations.

Despite a bumpy rollout here and nationally, Governor Ducey is sticking to his plan to “vaccinate our way out of this,” further ignoring scientists who warn that path will result in many fatalities. The governor said in his State of the State address that keeping Arizona open is priority one, as he looks beyond the pandemic to an Arizona ready for more population and business growth.

“The critics can say what they want,” he told a statewide audience. “But, the path I’ve outlined is the right path for Arizona.”

One year since the virus was confirmed in to be in Arizona, ABC15 data analyst Garrett Archer offers this scorecard:


  • Diagnostic Tests: 6,549,568
  • Cases: 732,643
  • Deaths: 12,448

The latest models from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict 18,568 deaths in Arizona by May.