Ducey Tweaks Policy, Adds Nursing Staff As COVID-19 Spreads Unabated

Ducey Tweaks Policy, Adds Nursing Staff As COVID-19 Spreads Unabated
Governor Doug Ducey said today he will direct $60 million in funding to staff hospitals and made tweaks to state policy that help restaurants seat more customers outdoors.

He did not institute the more aggressive measures that some public experts have called for.

"I believe we should instead focus on accountability and enforcing the rules we have now — taking a targeted approach to ensuring we all participate in the safety measures we know work," he said at a livestreamed press conference.

Ducey said he is issuing an executive order allowing restaurants to expand across sidewalks and other public right-of-ways and partnering with the Arizona Restaurant Association to provide $1 million for heaters and other items to help seat people outdoors.

He is also issuing an executive order that will require local jurisdictions to post a public notice of any 50-person-plus gatherings they approve, along with agreements specifying mitigation measures. This comes after the City of Phoenix approved a soccer tournament that brought 500 teams to the area over the holiday weekend.

In a final tweak, Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ is amending the rules so businesses that receive a second substantiated complaint for not following COVID-19 protocols will face closure.

The measures come as COVID-19 runs rampant through the state, infecting an average of 4,300 new people each day, the most ever. The head of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute told reporters earlier in the day that the institute's modeling shows the spread of cases might not slow until late January, and then only because so many people have been infected.

“We’re talking about a possibility of 200,000 [additional] cases in the state," Joshua LaBaer said. The total pandemic so far has seen 340,000 confirmed cases in the state, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS).

The ASU modeling has led members of the modeling teams at the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University to send a letter to DHS calling for a statewide mask mandate and another lockdown accompanied by government assistance.

Ducey said he has heard the "very loud" calls for another lockdown.

"I just don't think it's the right policy," he said, citing the economic and mental health impacts.

ASU modeling has predicted that COVID-19 patients will fill up hospitals in the next few weeks. LaBaer said that 11 of the state's 82 intensive-care units were full as of Monday, with more patients expected.

The new funding should help address that. Public health experts have said Arizona's biggest challenge regarding hospital capacity would be finding enough staffing. Ducey said that the funding has secured 500 more nurses to come to the state by the end of this month, with still more arriving through January.

The governor reiterated that congregate settings like restaurants and gyms should be operating at reduced capacity, and are bound by the same restrictions that ended the spike of virus deaths over the summer. But current restrictions, which were established on August 10 following a court ruling, differ in that the businesses are not required to shut down when there is substantial COVID-19 spread in their county. Under the governor's June 29 order, now superseded, those businesses were shut down by default and could not open at all until COVID-19 spread was at lower levels than it is currently.

Eight chief medical officers from Arizona hospital providers wrote a letter to Christ today asking for a ban on indoor dining and statewide curfew, the Arizona Republic reported.

Ducey also responded to Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who proposed an emergency curfew in the city and was one of a group of mayors who held a press conference calling on Ducey to implement a statewide mask mandate.

"I don't know how the mayor will enforce the curfew when she won't enforce the mitigation steps which are currently in place," he said in response to a reporter's inquiry.

Ducey appears to be pinning his hopes, in part, on the new COVID-19 vaccines that will begin being distributed in the state as early as the middle of this month.

"These vaccinations are our road back to a normal life," he said, saying they will cause an inflection point as soon as late spring or early summer.

It may take longer than that for vaccinations to be widespread, however. LaBaer said we're not likely to see that until the second or third quarter of 2021, meaning fall.

The state is forming a plan for distribution that will prioritize medical workers, vulnerable people and first responders. Ducey said he asked for teachers to be prioritized as well and is signing an executive order to work with insurance companies to ensure the vaccine is available at no cost.

In the meantime, it's up to Arizonans to wear masks, social distance and stay safe, he said.

"We are in for a tough several weeks here," he said.
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Erasmus Baxter was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.