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Politics, Pressure, and Death: Arizona confronts a COVID catastrophe

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey
Posted at 9:23 PM, Jun 19, 2020

President Trump will campaign in Phoenix on Tuesday, stepping into one of the nation’s hottest spots for COVID-19. The President’s arrival is significant because, since his last visit, in which he praised Governor Doug Ducey for his handling of the crisis, positive cases and deaths are spiking with no end in sight.

Arizona cities are currently scrambling to put mask requirements and enforcement in place, with record numbers of positive tests and deaths, and with stresses on the healthcare system building.

ABC15 News is looking back at the facts, the numbers, and the governor’s decision making.

ABC15 reviewed hours of Governor Ducey’s news briefings in the pandemic months, looking at his own words and how they’ve changed from stopping the spread of COVID to preparing for a mass casualty event, an event that experts worry is now on our doorstep.

A master marketer

As he’ll readily tell you himself, there’s one person making the final decisions in Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey. A successful marketer and businessperson, the governor drives his message with repetition and visual aids. He brags about returning “the Arizona way,” and in the face of rising numbers, offers encouragement that “Arizona is heading in the right direction.” While claiming he’s in charge, the governor’s decisions when President Trump is nearby would suggest otherwise, according to veteran political journalist and observer, Jim Small.

In early April, when businesses and schools were closing and the state was working hard to block community spread, the governor assured us that “we’re working every day to reduce the number of Arizonans that contract COVID-19.”

Then another master marketer came to town. On May 5, President Donald Trump, wearing no mask, toured the Honeywell plant in Phoenix, Governor Ducey by his side.

With the President in town, the mission changed. For Jim Small, Editor in Chief of AZ Mirror and a long-time follower of state politics, this was the governor’s turning point.

“I think you had the president talking about the need to open things up and really trying to lean on governors in particular,” Small told ABC15.

With the state essentially closed, businesses failing, unemployment rising, and tax revenues dropping, the political pressure was coming from more than the White House. There were noisy protests at the Capitol and from Republican state legislators furious over what they saw as a governor gone dictator.

By May 15, Ducey’s stop the spread, actions became inactions. He let the stay-at-home order expire. Over Memorial Day weekend, bars and restaurants were packed. Few patrons wore masks. Social distancing was non-existent. The images were seen around the world and Arizona was in a spotlight the governor disliked.

His response was not to fine the bars and restaurants or to take away liquor licenses, as he had threatened in an April 29 briefing. Instead, Ducey scolded the media for what he saw as hyped coverage of a few bad actors. Then, he offered a change in messaging. Reducing COVID infections was no longer the priority.

The New Message

On June 5, he assured Arizonans that, “We mourn every death…” and then a week later at a June 11 briefing, Ducey lectured reporters, “What we want to measure, what’s most important is where are we today in hospital capacity.”

The new message: We have the beds. We have the ventilators. We can handle a mass casualty event.

Jim Small’s observation about capacity, this was “callous.”

“If and when people get sick, it’ll be ok because we’ll be able to treat them,” said Small in an ABC15 interview. “That strikes me as kind of callous, because this is a disease, we don’t know a lot about.”

Dying on a ventilator is something Tucson school teacher Annie Holub knows something about. In a letter to Governor Ducey, published in the Tucson Sentinel on June 15, she talked about her father’s death while on a ventilator in 2011. Saying that the governor’s focus around hospital capacity is just wrong.

“My dad had a catheter; a bag of odorous urine hung from the side of the bed. More machines than I could count surrounded him, beeping, buzzing, a constant cacophony of last-ditch effort. The only signs of life. His skin was pallid. Nurses had to come make adjustments, rotate his unconscious body slightly, every hour or so,” she wrote in the Sentinel. “Your insistence that Arizona is okay because we have hospital capacity sounds cruel and ignorant to those of us with experience watching loved ones die in the ICU hooked up to a ventilator.”

Following the Numbers

In each COVID briefing, coming at a rate of about one a week since mid-March, the governor and Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) Director Dr. Cara Christ have been less verbal about the pain of the illness and more focused on models and numbers. They insist Arizona opened in mid-May because it met White House gating criteria.

ABC15 Data Analyst Garrett Archer’s full-time job is to watch those numbers too, and he hasn’t been able to replicate what’s driving this decision making.

“No, we weren’t able to fully replicate what the governor used as his percent positive,” Archer reports. “We were always about four or five points higher than what he said, and the reasons we were given was there were some labs that weren’t reporting the same way. So, the governor’s numbers reflected the removal of those labs.”

ASU researchers weighed in on June 17, saying their data shows Arizona opened without meeting White House gating criteria. The governor is unapologetic, telling reporters this week that “…different people can look at data in different ways, I’m being guided by data from public health and the Centers for Disease Control.”

Still, the numbers aren’t comforting. Friday marked the highest number of positive cases ever at over 3,000. Since June 1, deaths have an average 140 per week. Since the stay-at-home-order expired on May 15, cases have grown an incredible 142 percent, driven by the people aged 20 to 45. While the elderly and infirm are clearly the most at risk, the behaviors associated with reopening appear to be striking at a younger demographic.

What Comes Next?

President Trump visits COVID rich Arizona again on June 23 with plans to tour the border wall in Yuma and to rally youth supporters indoors at a church in north Phoenix. More than 3,000 young people are expected to crowd into a sanctuary with the President and other politicians pushing his re-election bid. The President is infamous or famous, depending on one’s perspective, for not wearing masks. He’ll be indoors with limited opportunities for social distancing.

Governor Ducey is listed by the Trump campaign as a participant in the event. His office tells ABC15 he hasn’t confirmed his attendance. The governor frequently tells reporters that his job is guiding the state through its COVID crisis “24/7.” Friday, ABC15 contacted the governor’s office asking for a comment on the degree to which politics influenced his decisions over the past 90 days.

His response through press aide Patrick Ptak was “the governor has and will continue to be guided by public health. While others may use this global pandemic to engage in politics and running campaigns, the governor is focused on engaging health experts and running the state.”