Trump visit to Arizona amid coronavirus surge draws concern


PHOENIX — When President Donald Trump takes to a church podium Tuesday at a campaign event organized by Turning Point Action, the conservative advocacy group based here, he will be visiting a very different Arizona from the one he last traveled to just six weeks ago.

This time around, the president is facing a spiking coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the state with no signs of abating.

As of Monday night, Arizona had recorded 54,586 cases, a doubling of cases in just the last 15 days, and 1,342 deaths, according to NBC News' tally.

The president will also visit Yuma on Tuesday morning to tour border wall construction operations. Two workers helping build the wall who live in the community of Ajo have contracted COVID-19, according to Aaron Pacheco, a spokesman for the Pima County Health Department.

Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, reversed his position on masks last week, allowing counties and cities to mandate them for residents if they choose. The governor relented after weeks during which numerous public health experts, doctors, mayors and county officials urged the move.

"We recommend that all Arizonans wear a face mask," Ducey said at a news conference. "Whenever you cannot socially distance. At the grocery store. At the pharmacy. At the bank. When you're on mass transit. We are going to change and update guidance so that local governments can implement mask and face covering policies so they can determine enforcement."

Still, some localities say that as cases continue to rise to record levels in the state, they remain concerned about being able to procure adequate levels of certain items of personal protective and testing equipment. Others say that in this environment, the president's visit itself represents a potential public health disaster.

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Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor of community, environment and policy at the University of Arizona, with an expertise in public health, told NBC News last week that the governor's move was a "welcome step in what I would consider the right direction." But he warned that Trump's rally, set to be held at Dream City Church, which can hold thousands of people, could be a public health disaster waiting to happen.

"The last time President Trump visited Arizona, it prompted Ducey to quicken the pace of the reopening," said Gerald, who has been publishing weekly white papers about the pandemic. "We were committed then to lifting the stay-at-home order on May 16. A lot of that seemed to be temporally related to President Trump's visit. It's always interesting and disruptive when President Trump visits. So who knows what this event holds in store?"

Over the weekend, there were major complications for many Arizonans seeking tests, with many waiting hours or being denied. Banner Health, the state's largest hospital provider, turned away asymptomatic people, while another large urgent care provider said it could not turn test results around in under a week.

Arizonans also waited more than five hours at some testing locations, including NextCare Urgent Care facilities.

"We just can't ramp up fast enough," said Sonya Engle, chief operating officer of Sonora Quest Laboratories. "As we saw the demand increase, the prevalence went up."

The governor said last week that he would call up the Arizona National Guard to ramp up contact tracing across the state, a task that has already been undertaken by members of the National Guard in other states, including Arkansas, Delaware, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.

Roughly 300 members of the Arizona National Guard are scheduled to work in coordination with the state Health Services Department, as well as the 15 county health departments, to assist with contact tracing.

However, while Ducey has encouraged all Arizonans to wear masks, he stopped short of ordering masks statewide, a step California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed late last week. Other states, including Virginia and Massachusetts, have had similar orders for weeks.

In an interview last week, Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino said he personally knew at least half of the 12 people who have succumbed to the disease in his town of 20,000 people.

"Almost everybody in Nogales knows someone who has passed away or knows a family who is in quarantine," he said.

Nogales is the county seat of Santa Cruz County, which as of Monday had 1,498 confirmed cases in a countywide population of about 40,000.

One of Arizona's recent cases was that of Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who said Wednesday that he was diagnosed with COVID-19 at a White House screening just before he was set to meet the president. (Lamb notably said in early May that he would not enforce the state's stay-at-home order, believing it to be unconstitutional.)

Meanwhile, Phoenix, the state's capital, has not received any of the 1.74 million N95 masks that it has cumulatively ordered since the crisis began, and it does not expect the first masks to arrive until July. That is due to a combination of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's diversion program, questionable suppliers that were unable to deliver adequate usable products and long delays in the conventional supply chain.

"We do not know precisely what happened with the supply chain, but there was a surge in demand for supply and heard from vendors there were issues with shipping goods from China," Michael Hammett, a city spokesman, said last week by email.

Neither Dream City Church nor Turning Point Action responded to questions about COVID-19-related protocols during the president's event.

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As with the president's recent speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attendees are being asked to sign liability waivers acknowledging that they will not hold the event host or the venue responsible if they contract the disease.

However, Turning Point Action does intend to comply with the city's mask order, and it said it will distribute masks to those who do not have them.

The city of Phoenix has been in contact with the White House, Hammett said. "Our goal right now is to communicate the requirement to the public and educate on the importance of this public health mandate," he said by email.

The White House declined to comment on what specific coronavirus-prevention protocols would be in place for the Phoenix event.

"The president takes the health and safety of everyone traveling in support of himself and all White House operations very seriously," said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat who represents part of Maricopa County, where health officials have acknowledged a rise in community spread of COVID-19, urged Trump supporters to "be responsible" as they converge on Dream City Church.

"We're not going to try to ban the president from coming here, because I think it causes more problems, and not sure of the legality of it," he said in an interview. "But for God's sake, when you're in that crowd and everyone is next to each other, please be responsible. Wear a mask."

Vaughn Hillyard reported from Seattle and Phoenix, Cyrus Farivar from Oakland, California, and Monica Alba from Washington.

Originally published