Phoenix Mayor Says The City Is In A 'Crisis Situation,' Needs Help

Jul 6, 2020

Arizona is one of just five states that has seen new coronavirus cases climb by the thousands each day in the past couple of weeks.

The state's governor, Republican Doug Ducey, in May lifted a stay-at-home order he put in place in March so the economy could begin reopening. But a week ago, Ducey ordered bars, gyms, movie theaters and water parks to shut down again for 30 days as daily caseloads topped 3,000.

"We sent a message that we had defeated COVID-19 and we had not," Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, tells NPR. "We are really in a bad situation where we need more resources for our medical system and help with testing."

In May, Ducey tied the hands of mayors when he issued an executive order requiring Arizona cities and counties to abide by state-level guidelines and do nothing that "conflicts with or is in addition to" those restrictions.

He relented in mid-June, allowing cities to impose their own facemask requirements if they desired. Phoenix, Arizona's most populous city, quickly did so.

Gallego talked with NPR's All Things Considered about local authority and what help is needed. Here are selected excerpts:

Do you think [the governor ordering bars and gyms closed again is] going to be enough to reverse this trajectory that we're seeing now?

I would like for mayors and city councils to have the tools to make decisions in our local community. For example, I'm concerned that there's still transmission incurring in packed restaurants. So could we move those to take-out? I also would really ask that every level of government help the city of Phoenix with testing. This weekend I was at a testing location where people were waiting in 110 degrees for hours and hours, eight hours in their car, running out of gasoline, desperate to get a test. I would love to see more support.

With this major spike in new cases, how confident are you that Phoenix has enough, say, ICU beds to handle a surge of hospitalizations at this point?

We are in a crisis situation with our health care. We have reached the level where over 90% of our ICU beds are in use. And we are quite worried that after the Fourth of July weekend, we will see another large growth in COVID-19 admissions to the hospital. So we are very worried about what's to come. I believe the worst is still ahead of us, which is scary because it's already at the level of care where people are being treated in hallways and nurses are coming in from other states. I don't want to say, though, that Phoenix is the only Arizona community that's suffering. Our Navajo Nation is among the hardest hit anywhere in the world. It's a tough situation in all corners of our community.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The first known case of the coronavirus in Arizona was in January. It took five months to reach 50,000 cases in the state, but two weeks later, that number has doubled. Arizona reported today that there are now more than 100,000 documented cases of the coronavirus there. It's now one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the country. Phoenix is the biggest city in Arizona, and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, joins us now.

Welcome.

KATE GALLEGO: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So I guess I just want to start with a very simple question, and that is, why? Why do you think cases of the coronavirus have doubled in just two weeks?

GALLEGO: I am concerned that Arizona reopened too quickly. Our governor lifted the stay-at-home order in mid-May and immediately went to situations such as open nightclubs with no masks. We sent a message that we had defeated COVID-19, and we had not. We are really in a bad situation where we need more resources for our medical system and help with testing.

CHANG: Well, you mentioned the governor reopening the state. Gov. Doug Ducey, he's a Republican. He is now ordering bars, gyms and theaters to shut down. He ordered that last Monday. Do you think that's going to be enough to reverse this trajectory that we're seeing now?

GALLEGO: I would like for mayors and city councils to have the tools to make decisions in our local community. For example, I'm concerned that there's still transmission occurring in packed restaurants, so could we move those to takeout? I also would really ask that every level of government help the city of Phoenix with testing. This weekend I was at a testing location where people were waiting in 110 degrees for hours and hours - eight hours in their car, running out of gasoline, desperate to get a test. I would love to see more support.

CHANG: You mentioned testing, and I do have a question there. I mean, you have had months now to figure out a plan for testing. Why do you think you're in a crisis now?

GALLEGO: We've reached out and asked all of the people in the public health world to help. So I was able to speak with Adm. Giroir, the Assistant Secretary for Health with FEMA; asked them to help us. When we originally reached out to the federal government, they said we didn't have a sufficient number of cases to get that federal support. Clearly, we do now.

CHANG: You're in part blaming the federal government for not helping sooner, and that's why you are in the bind that you are in with testing.

GALLEGO: I would like to see a national testing strategy with more deployments of experts in health care. We don't have a public health department at the City of Phoenix, so I've had amazing public works, library and parks employees to help us step up with testing. I'm grateful that they've been willing to do it, but I would love to see a more coordinated national effort to help communities like Phoenix. It's heartbreaking to see someone who's aching try to refill a gasoline tank because they've been sitting in a line for hours.

CHANG: Well, I'm interested in hearing about the extent of federal government help you have seen so far. Vice President Mike Pence said last week that he would send 500 medical personnel to your state. Have you seen any of that help in Phoenix?

GALLEGO: We did talk with FEMA today about activating a rapid assessment team to come out. They are no longer doing the large-scale federal-run sites. When there's no one else to ask for help, mayors have to step up, and cities have to lead.

CHANG: But how does that happen when your city doesn't have a health department?

GALLEGO: As a mayor, there's no one else to pass the buck to, so that's why we've challenged our librarians, parks workers and public works employees to step up and help with testing. But in the United States of America, I have to think that there should be more resources. And we shouldn't have to yet again depend on our librarians.

CHANG: Well now, Phoenix is in Maricopa County, which has seen the worst of the COVID crisis in Arizona. Arizona keeps track of new cases by county. So I'm curious. With this major spike in new cases, how confident are you that Phoenix has enough, say, ICU beds to handle a surge of hospitalizations at this point?

GALLEGO: We are in a crisis situation with our health care. We have reached the level where over 90% of our ICU beds are in use, and we are quite worried that after the Fourth of July weekend, we will see another large growth in COVID-19 admissions to the hospital. So we are very worried about what's to come. I believe the worst is still ahead of us, which is scary because it's already at this level of care where people are being treated in hallways and nurses are coming in from other states. I don't want to say, though, that Phoenix is the only Arizona community that's suffering. Our Navajo Nation is among the hardest hit anywhere in the world. It's a tough situation in all corners of our community.

CHANG: Kate Gallego is the mayor of Phoenix, Ariz.

Thank you very much for speaking with us today.

GALLEGO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.