Nurses, doctors feel strain as virus races through Arizona

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Caroline Maloney stands outside HonorHealth's Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center at the end of her overnight shift early Friday, June 26, 2020 in Scottsdale, Ariz. Arizona nurses and doctors find themselves on the frontline as the coronavirus rips through the state, making it one of the world's hot spots. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX – They saw the ominous photos: Crowded hospitals, exhausted nurses, bodies piling up in morgues. It was far away, in New York, northern Italy and other distant places.

Now, after three months of anxiously waiting and preparing, Arizona nurses and doctors are on the front lines as the coronavirus rips through the state, making it one of the world’s hot spots. The trickle of a few virus patients in March became a steady stream two weeks after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ended a stay-home order in mid-May and allowed most businesses to reopen, and is now a scourge with no end in sight.

An intensive care nurse in metro Phoenix said she cries when she thinks about all the people who have died from the virus in her hospital, or the times she clutched a frightened patient’s hands during an intubation. Medical staff describe crowded emergency rooms where patients are put on ventilators waiting for a spot in the intensive care unit to open up. There are tearful goodbyes through a patio window in Tucson.

Angela Muzzy, with 31 years experience, said she tells younger nurses they'll remember their role helping people during a historic national crisis.

“We’re caring for physicians who have contracted this, we’re caring for mothers. Last week we withdrew life support on a 48-year-old mother and I stood out there with her 17-year-old son as she passed away,” said Muzzy, a clinical nurse specialist at southern Arizona’s Tucson Medical Center, where all 20 of 36 ICU beds dedicated to virus patients are full.

Hospitals across Arizona, a state of over 7 million people, spent a six-week lockdown and a nearly two-month ban on elective surgeries getting ready for the surge that’s appearing now. They polished emergency plans that require them to ensure they can increase capacity by 50%. They stocked up on masks and gowns, and trained professionals who normally work in operating rooms or other areas to care for virus patients. Dr. Lisa Goldberg, director of Tucson Medical Center’s emergency department, said her staff did drills, trained, and prepared.

Meanwhile Ducey, a Republican, argued the closures he ordered had slowed the spread of the disease and hospitals were now much better prepared. While he stressed the need for social distancing, he resisted wearing a mask himself in public even as cases mounted, batting away calls by some cities to allow them to require masks.

When the case surge became impossible to ignore, Ducey reversed himself on June 18 and allowed cities and counties to require masks in public, but didn't issue a statewide order. Most have, including Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma and the counties that surround them.