Arizona Still Doesn't Have Answers to These Critical COVID-19 Questions

The 2019 novel coronavirus.
The 2019 novel coronavirus.
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The coronavirus pandemic is spreading rapidly across the globe, killing thousands of people and prompting a national emergency in the United States.

Yet public health officials and health care providers in Arizona cannot or will not answer basic questions on what they're doing to increase the state's testing capacity, and how they're preparing for a surge of coronavirus cases.

Public health advocates agree that ramping up testing is critical to reducing the spread of the virus.

So, you might want to know: Who can get tested? Where can they get tested? How much it will cost?

Arizona's largest health care network — Banner Health — does not have answers to any of those questions.

When asked, Banner spokesperson Becky Armendariz provided a blanket statement devoid of any useful information: "Our preparedness team is hard at work ensuring that we have supplies and process to safely test and treat COVID-19 patients. I’m unable to provide specific details for you at this time. When more information becomes available, we will reach back out to share with you and post to our newsroom."

Abrazo Community Health Network, another large health care network in Arizona, was likewise short on details. Spokesperson Keith Jones said the network will test patients "when appropriate" if they meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's stringent testing criteria.

Abrazo spokesperson Keith Jones could not say whether any of its health care facilities have sent samples to either of the two commercial labs that began coronavirus testing this week in an effort to increase Arizona's testing capacity.

Next Care, which operates 40 urgent care centers in Arizona, has not responded to questions asking which of its facilities are providing testing.

In addition to providing scant information about testing, health officials cannot provide answers on Arizona's preparedness for a surge of coronavirus cases.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, tells Phoenix New Times there are three important questions to ask in case of a larger outbreak:

1. How many available hospital beds will Arizona have for coronavirus patients?

2. How many ventilators will be available to treat patients with severe respiratory symptoms?

3. Does Arizona has adequate medical staff to handle a spike in cases, such as those seen in New York and Washington State, and what contingency plans do hospitals have if they lose qualified staff to quarantines and other anti-coronavirus measures?

"That should be information they know now or know soon," said Humble, who previously served as the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services under Governor Jan Brewer. "Whether they will give it to you is another thing."

By deadline, Arizona Department of Health Services spokesperson Chris Minnick was still working on gathering answers to all three of those questions.

When asked specifically about Banner Health's bed capacity, ventilator supply, and staffing, spokesperson Armandariz offered yet another vague statement: "Our system preparedness team is hard at work right now to address all preparedness needs for our organization in light of COVID-19. We are unable to provide an interview or answer your questions at this time, but I am hoping to have more experts and preparedness team members available to assist with media inquires next week."

Abrazo's spokesperson, Jones, did not respond to any of the three questions.

The Maricopa County Public Health department has also been less than forthcoming with information about current coronavirus cases. As New Times previously reported, the county would not say whether a 90-year-old man who tested positive for coronavirus was staying at a nursing home or some other kind of facility that houses elderly people, who are at greater risk of dying or becoming severely ill from coronavirus.

Elizabeth Whitman and Meg O'Connor contributed reporting.

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