One year into the coronavirus pandemic

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – When the first case of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was diagnosed in Arizona on Jan. 22, 2020, nobody had any idea what was in store for us in the days, weeks, and months to come. We couldn’t have known.

At that point, most of us had heard of the new, extremely contagious coronavirus. But the disease did not even have a name yet, and it certainly was not widespread here at home. It would be more than a month before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Fast forward a year, and we’ve seen Arizona lead the nation in COVID-19 cases -- twice.

On the anniversary of that first COVID-19 diagnosis in Arizona, the state surged past 700,000 known cases and topped 12,000 deaths. What a difference a year makes.

Leading the nation -- more than once

On Jan. 5, a little more than two weeks before the anniversary of Arizona’s first official COVID-19 diagnosis, numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Arizona with more coronavirus cases per 100,000 people than any other state. That statistic, cases per 100,000 people, is a rate that let us compare areas or groups of different sizes in an “apples to apples” way.

On Tuesday, Jan. 5, Arizona’s average number of cases per 100,000 over the week prior was 112.1. That was well over the second-highest number – 95.8 – recorded in California and Rhode Island, and 1.7 times national average of 64.5.

By Jan. 21, the eve of of Arizona's first COVID-19 anniversary, that per 100K number was down to 97.4. Better, but still the highest in the country.

But this month is not the first time Arizona has been a hotspot for the coronavirus. Back in early July, Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the medical director for disease control at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said our state became a hotspot when the state reopened and people started to go out and stop social distancing. CDC data at the time put Arizona's positivity rate at about roughly 27%, more than three times the national average.

Maricopa County sees rise in COVID-19 cases

The stats were startling enough, but it was a July 8, 2020, article in The New York Times that really caught everybody's attention.  The headline was "Arizona is #1," and it featured a graph that compared us not only to other states, but also to entire countries. It said that no other country in the world had a faster spread than Arizona, Florida, or South Carolina.

COVID-19 made Arizona national news, but not in a good way.

Gov. Doug Ducey's office called the article "misleading and inaccurate," but Dr. Shad Marvasti, a University of Arizona College of Medicine disagreed. “It is as bad with respect to how fast COVID-19 is expanding and growing in terms of numbers of new infections,” he said.

Ducey's office calls New York Times' article on coronavirus in Arizona 'misleading'

The beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Arizona

Arizona’s first coronavirus case involved a member of the Arizona State University community who had recently traveled to China. One day after that diagnosis, Wuhan, China, believed to be ground zero for the coronavirus, went into lockdown. It would not be long before other countries followed suit in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.

FILE - In this June 10, 2020 file photo the emergency room entrance at Valleywise Health Center hospital is shown in Phoenix. 

There were fewer than a dozen cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Arizona in January and February combined. The spread picked up in a big way in March. That was when Arizonans started dying. The first COVID-19 deaths -- six of them -- happened the week of March 15. Since then, not a week has gone by without a COVID-19 death, totaling nearly 10,200 for all of 2020. More than 10,000 lives lost in 10 months.

Arizona's first coronavirus death, according to ADHS, was on March 17, although we wouldn't hear about it until three days later. It was a Maricopa County man in his 50s who had underlying health conditions. Although the coronavirus does not discriminate, we were learning that COVID-19 tends to be harder on and riskier for older people and those already dealing with health issues like diabetes, heart disease, or a wide variety of other conditions.

Dealing with the pandemic at the state level

While there was no nationwide action to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, individual states enacted their own rules.

In Arizona, it started with a declaration of a Public Health State of Emergency on March 11, the same day the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. School districts started announcing closures, first a few at a time and then in droves. A few days later schools shut down statewide. Initially for two weeks, it was later extended through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Once students and teachers were off for spring break, they didn't return to their classrooms. Arizona's schools had to convert to virtual learning models almost overnight.

School districts coming up with coronavirus plans amid statewide closures

The state set up its 2-1-1 coronavirus hotline on March 22. "With this hotline launch, Arizonans can get important COVID-19 related information in English and Spanish by simply dialing 2-1-1," Ducey said that day.

Nearly a year later, it's still in use.

Gov. Ducey announces new 211 coronavirus hotline

On March 30, Gov. Doug Ducey issued his "Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected" order. It kicked in the next day and was slated to last for a month. Basically Arizona told residents that they had to "limit their time away from their place of residence or property... ." Hospitals were already restricting visitors, but now elective surgeries were being canceled. Restaurants converted to take-out and delivery as dining rooms closed. Businesses that could shifted to online models, many forced to change both what they did and how they did it. Arizona and our economy ground to a screeching halt.

And then came June and July. ADHS confirmed more than 160,000 cases of COVID-19 during those two months. It was a rough summer, particularly for health care workers as hospitals came close to hitting capacity. During June, one-quarter of Arizona's ICU beds -- all of Arizona's ICU beds -- was in use by people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. That was up to a third by about the middle of the month, and then half by early July. 

Virus Outbreak Arizona Governor

FILE - In this June 25, 2020 file photo, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks about the latest coronavirus data at a news conference in Phoenix. 

Coronavirus spreading throughout Arizona

March was bad, relatively speaking. But April more than doubled the number of March's confirmed COVID-19 cases. And then May doubled April.

Although Ducey's stay-at-home order expired as originally planned, life did not get back to anything approaching normal. Businesses were still either shut down or operating at a fraction of their capacity, and people lost their jobs in massive numbers.

The number of new unemployment claims in Arizona grew weekly, surging to nearly 30,000 the week of March 21, up from fewer than 4,000 the week before. It wasn't surprising that it got worse before starting to get better. The week of April 4, days after Ducey issued his stay-at-home order, more than 132,000 new unemployment claims were filed in Arizona. While the numbers have gone down significantly since then, we're still well over where we were pre-pandemic.

By December, the trust fund that pays for Arizona's unemployment benefits had plunged by 90%, from $1.1 billion at the beginning of 2020 to less than $100 million by the end of the year.

Trust fund that covers Arizona employment plunged 90% this year

Unemployment fraud

The spike in unemployment claims, in addition to overwhelming the Arizona Department of Economic Services, brought another problem. Fraud. And it affected those who filed legitimate claims.

In September the agency said Arizona had probably paid out hundreds of millions in fake unemployment claims since the beginning of the pandemic.

3 On Your Side reported in October that ADES had flagged some 3.4 million claims as possibly fraudulent had been involved in more than a dozen investigations leading to arrests all over the country.

AZ inundated with 3.4 million fraudulent unemployment claims

Investigating those claims caused a backlog in payouts that left many Arizonans who relied on those benefits hanging and with bills to pay.

In an attempt to curb the fraud, the state instituted a new system for recipients to verify their identities.

Unemployment recipients will have to verify identity with new system through DES

That came with its own set of problems. Some called it a hurdle to getting those much-needed benefits. But DES said it would streamline the process.

“If we can get people identified and get them processed early on and make sure we are not dealing with fraud then we can get the benefits to the people who truly need them quicker,” employment attorney Joshua Black told Arizona's Family in early December.

Based on what 3TV and CBS 5 viewers told us, experiences with the ID verification system were mixed.

FILE - In this June 27, 2020, file photo, people are tested in their in vehicles in Phoenix's western neighborhood of Maryvale with free COVID…

Fighting to stay open

In late June well after our stay-at-home order had expired and into a virus surge, Ducey implemented what he called a "one-month pause." That closed bars, gyms, and movie theaters, and delayed the start of the 2020-'21 school year.

Arizona to close bars, gyms, theaters again; delay start of school

Not every business owner affected followed the order. The owner of Mountainside Fitness sued to stay open. So did several boutique studios with Arizona locations. 

Mountainside Fitness goes virtual in Arizona
Mountainside Fitness plans to reopen Thursday despite not receiving application approval
Judge denies gyms’ request for contempt order against Gov. Ducey

Testing troubles

One issue that plagued Arizona in the early weeks and months of the pandemic is testing, or lack thereof. People who were sick couldn't get tested for the coronavirus. There simply were not enough testing kits to accommodate the growing demand. 

Phoenix residents say they have symptoms but can't get tested for coronavirus
Shortage of coronavirus testing equipment in Arizona frustrates doctors, patients

Lines at testing sites were long and frustrations were high. But the problem wasn't only the number of test kits available. Those kits also had to be processed. It took some time for labs to ramp up, which meant people were left waiting for their results, sometimes for days.

Hundreds of COVID-19 tests not processed yet in AZ as local lab faces backlog

Arizona State University helped develop a coronavirus kit that's less invasive as the dreaded nasal swab. It became the test of choice for most people.

Arizona State University creates test for COVID-19 that uses saliva

It late April, closing in on the end of Arizona's stay-at-home order, health officials announced the "Arizona Testing Blitz." The goal was to improve access to testing, particularly in underserved areas, and test up to 60,000 over the course of three weeks.

PPE problems

Also in short supply? Personal protective equipment or PPE. That was not a widely known acronym before March 2020. 

Health care workers did not have what they needed to protect themselves while treating an ever-increasing number of people with the coronavirus. For a time, many did not go home at all for fear of infecting their families.

Phoenix-area hospitals running short of protective gear
Medical protective equipment from National Stockpile arrives in Arizona

When Banner put out the call for homemade masks so its medical-grade masks could be reserved for those working directly with patients, Arizonans got to work sewing. Masks for health care workers. Masks for the struggling Navajo Nation. Masks for those in need. Arizonans, both individually and as part of their businesses, made masks. Lots of masks.

Banner Health seeking 100,000 homemade masks
Chandler woman sews over 500 masks for health care workers
Phoenix woman and family making face masks to send to the Navajo Nation
Arizona military wife makes, donates masks with Soldiers' Angels

PPE was in short supply to be sure, but another resource -- something far more precious -- was strained beyond what many thought possible. Arizona had more patients and health care workers to look after them. While that wasn't something the general public could help with, they could show their appreciation. And they did. Some people made care kits for traveling nurses. Others delivered food to weary workers. Sometimes it was as simple as a "thank you" or applause at the end of a very long shift, acknowledgement and respect for a job well done during the most trying of times.

Scottsdale officers, firefighters cheer on health care staff during shift change

The peak and settling into summer

The peak of the first wave of the coronavirus was the week of June 28. Nearly 28,000 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed that week. The positivity rate was a stunning 21%. While medical experts said there likely would be a second wave, many people thought we were past the worst of it. The numbers seemed to support that.

FILE - In this July 23, 2020 file photo, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gives the latest Arizona coronavirus update during a news conference in Phoen…

August saw more than 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to ADHS. Still high, but a fraction of what we saw in June and July. In September, there were just 15,700 new cases. At the time, we said "just" and thought we might be on the road to recovery. 

By the end of October, with nearly 31,000 new coronavirus cases, the little bit of optimism sparked by August and September started to flicker. As we approached Thanksgiving, it dimmed. 

We now know we're well into our second wave of the pandemic, and it's worse than many imagined. November brought more than 103,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and steadily increasing weekly positivity rates -- 10% at the beginning of the month to 18% at the end.

December more than doubled November in terms of confirmed cases and 17% was the lowest weekly positivity rate we saw all month.

December and January, the deadliest months

The peaks we saw in June and July -- case count, death toll, hospital capacity -- became hills by the time we got to the holidays.

December brought Arizona near 220,000 known cases of COVID-19. More than 3,200 people died of COVID-19, in that one month. January was worse -- more than 4,200 deaths.

January now the deadliest month of COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona

The vaccine, aka "the light at the end of a very long tunnel"

At the end of December, two much-anticipated vaccines had been green lit by the Food and Drug Administration and the manufacturers and doses were on their way here. The first to arrive was the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. The one from Moderna, also two doses, followed quickly. A single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson won the FDA's approval for emergency use in March.

Emily Alexander, 37, shows her COVID-19 vaccination card shortly after getting the vaccine in the parking lot of the State Farm Stadium.

Arizona put its vaccine distribution plan into action, but, like everything else having to do with COVID-19, there were glitches, specifically with the scheduling.

The demand for the vaccine is massive. The supply is limited. 

The state set up a 24/7 vaccination site at State Farm Stadium and is opening a daytime site at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Feb. 1. ADHS opened tens of thousands of February appointments for those two sites earlier this week. They were booked solid in about 13 hours.

February COVID-19 vaccine appointments at both state-run locations are fully booked

People told Arizona's Family it took them hours to get an appointment through the ADHS online systems. Other said they tried for hours but got nowhere.

At this point, those who got their first shot are concerned about getting their second. Others are anxious to get any shot.

Christ said earlier this week that those who got their first shot at State Farm Stadium are guaranteed a second dose. Information about what's happening at other sites has been harder to come by.

For all the difficulty in getting appointments to get the vaccine, the majority of people we've spoken to say the process once you get to a vaccination site is smooth and efficient. 

Something good

There's no doubt that the pandemic has been hard, to put it mildly, on everyone. But it's also brought out a kindness in people. Arizonans have always been amazing when it comes to stepping up and helping when needed. And it's never been needed more.

From cheerful chalk drawings on sidewalks to kids 3-D printing masks for frontline workers to random acts of kindness. Arizonans have -- like we always do and always will -- come through.

21-year-old draws cartoon chalk murals for kids in north Phoenix neighborhood
Ahwatukee 6th-grader using 3D printer to help nurses, doctors

Through all the pain and loss, there were stories of hope -- people who recovered when they thought they might not.

Beyond the COVID-19 numbers: Recovering after fearing the worst

Looking forward

So, what can we expect going into the second year of our new normal? 

As Christ has been saying in one way or another, we need to stay vigilant.

Despite fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations, Arizona officials warn of challenges ahead

The hope is that things will improve as more people get vaccinated, but building immunity is not instantaneous. And getting shots into arms have proved challenging. While only available to specific populations right now, the hope is that the vaccines will be widely available to anyone who wants one by this summer.

It seems far away, but we're closer to the summer than we are to the beginning the pandemic.

Until then, at least, Arizona's health agencies will continue to urge people to wear face masks and social distance, neither of which seems weird anymore.

The hope, according to national experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, is that we'll reach herd immunity, where the virus has nowhere else to go, by fall. 

"By the time we get to the early fall, we will have enough good herd immunity to be able to really get back to some strong semblance of normality -- schools, theaters, sports events, restaurants," he told CNN shortly after New Year's Day. 

So, things will get better, but it will happen gradually.


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