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Tim Steller's opinion: Despite accolades, Arizona's coronavirus experience far from a success story

Tim Steller's opinion: Despite accolades, Arizona's coronavirus experience far from a success story

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, accompanied by President Donald Trump, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

That was an astonishing about-face.

Arizonans just experienced a terrifying June and July, in which some hospitals became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, only to learn last week that the state was a model of pandemic response.

On Wednesday, Gov. Doug Ducey traveled to Washington, D.C., and visited with President Trump and Dr. Deborah Birx, who celebrated Arizona’s supposed success in dealing with the pandemic.

You’ve done a fantastic job,” Trump said. “We’re very proud of you. We love the people of Arizona, and they are very proud of the job you’ve done also, Doug.”

That would surprise many Arizonans: We lived it, and nobody can tell us the scary slide into crisis didn’t happen. In fact, the day after Ducey received plaudits at the White House, Arizona recorded its 4,000th coronavirus-related death.

However, it’s true that Arizona has done much better in the last month in confronting the pandemic. To consider Ducey’s and Arizona’s performance so far, you have to go back and remember the missteps of the previous three crucial months along with the good ones.

The mistakes aren’t necessarily what they appeared to be at the time. For example, back on March 24, I wrote a column arguing that Ducey was too late in shutting down Arizona and that the shutdown rules were too lax. I was one of many who pointed out incredulously that his stay-at-home order left golf courses open.

It seemed absurd at the time, but actually it was OK, since it’s possible to keep physical distance outside, and if you do, the risk of transmission is low, while the personal benefit is high.

The later timing and lighter touch of Ducey’s stay-at-home order turned out to be fine.

Abrupt reopening

But the March 30 order contained one crucial misstep: Ducey forbade towns, cities and counties from making any order beyond his to address the pandemic. They couldn’t, for example, restrict which businesses could open, how they could open or whether people must wear masks in public.

That proved to be a fatal mistake, but we wouldn’t grasp it for two or three months.

Ducey’s stay-at-home order worked: The percentage of tests for the novel coronavirus that came back positive reached 11% in mid-April but was down to 5% by the first week of May. The Rt, or current transmission rate, started April well above 1, meaning the spread of the disease was accelerating fast, and ended April well below 1, meaning it was slowing.

Ducey remained cautious: On April 30, he extended the stay-home order till May 15 but put in place some loosening of regulations on stores and restaurants.

In early May, Arizona’s efforts fell apart.

In retrospect, it’s unclear exactly why, but there were small, passionate protests against the stay-home order beginning in late April, and President Trump arrived to tour a 3M plant near Phoenix May 5. At the time, Trump was agitating to reopen state economies.

“When he ended the stay-at-home order, we went to Phase 3 immediately,” said Will Humble, the former director of Arizona’s health department. “He called it Phase 1, but the policy decisions were Phase 3. There was no compliance or enforcement whatsoever.”

“It became clear that was a mistake on Memorial Day, when the bars were full.”

Dimmer switch turned up

The six weeks of shutdown became a largely wasted effort, Wendy Smith-Reeve told me Saturday. She resigned as Arizona’s director of emergency management March 28, pointing out that a long-term planning group she established to deal with the pandemic had been sidelined.

If the experts in emergency planning had a chance to set long-term strategy during the shutdown, she said, Arizona would have better dealt with issues such as the need for more testing, more lab capacity, a contact-tracing effort and increased staffing for unemployment requests.

“What we saw play out, in my opinion, was a lack of strategy,” Smith-Reeve said.

Ducey said he was going to reopen the economy gradually, likening it to turning up a dimmer switch. Instead he turned the switch back on at full power. Bars were allowed to open if they served any food, as if they were restaurants.

“In an effort to provide flexibility, the governor created a loophole that you could drive a truck through,” said Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County’s chief medical officer.

By late May, the transmission rate had reached a new high of 1.25. The disease was spreading fast again.

Even as the number of tests for the virus began to ramp up in late May, the percentage of positive tests also surged. It was up to 12% by May 31 and kept rising till it reached above 20% in late June. Arizona’s crisis had arrived.

Mask mandates late

The scientific consensus on wearing masks had been building for months. My family began wearing them in March. I wrote a column May 16 beseeching people to be selfless and choose to wear a mask on behalf of others. It was consensus opinion in medical science by early June.

Ducey did not take the message to heart. He was captured in photographs at restaurants and at a graduation party in the first week of June, unmasked. The mayors of Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, all Democrats, asked him to mandate masking.

Ducey resisted.

On June 17, Ducey finally started correcting his errors. He wore a mask to his weekly news conference for the first time, and he announced he was allowing cities and counties to enforce their own mask ordinances. Tucson and Pima County imposed ordinances within two days.

“The mandatory mask-wearing ordinance has had a salutary effect on infections,” Garcia said. “The whole reason we have a decline now in infections is because of that ordinance. No matter how you cut it, the data that is accumulating on a day-to-day basis is pretty excellent.”

On June 24 the transmission measure dropped below 1 again, for the first time since May 5 — the spread was starting to slow again.

I said in a June 19 column that Ducey shirked his responsibility by handing the responsibility to cities and counties, and Humble agreed with that sentiment.

“I give him no credit,” Humble said. “The credit goes to the cities and counties.”

But Garcia noted that the public responds better to local edicts than to statewide ones. And on June 29, Ducey went further, reclosing bars, nightclubs, gyms, water parks and other businesses that drew crowds.

Asked that day by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services if he had “screwed up” by letting them stay open, Ducey acknowledged that implicitly, saying, “We’re fixing it.”

Back from the brink

After the surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths also surged. In May and June 2020, there were 23 % more total deaths in Arizona than there were in the same months in 2019. By mid-July, Tucson-area hospitals were sending patients to out-of-state cities such as San Diego and Albuquerque.

Dr. Birx visited Arizona on July 1 with Vice President Mike Pence. On Wednesday, Birx and Ducey credited each other for turning the crisis around after that. Garcia, though, told me not much changed in Pima County as a result of Birx’s visit.

Overall, Ducey’s performance in dealing with the virus was bad. Arizona had among the worst outbreaks in the world up until mid-July, though now the state is enjoying the lowest rate of spread in the country.

Fortunately, Arizona never was forced to triage care, withholding treatment from those with less life expectancy, but that option was on the table.

We pulled back from that brink, and today are figuring out a way forward without a new crisis. The reopening of schools and universities is the next big risk to manage.

To his credit, at the White House Gov. Ducey did not act as if the fight were over.

“No celebration, no victory lap,” Ducey said. “We’re going to stay the course.”

It’s just too bad we had to veer so far off course before finding a good one.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789.

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