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Rising COVID-19 cases start political brawl in Arizona

An alarming rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Arizona is setting off a political brawl in a key swing state. 

Democrats have accused the state’s GOP governor, Doug Ducey, of failing to take sufficient action to halt the spike in cases.

Public health experts are also warning about the trajectory of the state and say hospital capacity could be exceeded if trends continue. 

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Under mounting pressure, Ducey announced some steps on Wednesday evening to try to reverse the trend, including allowing localities to implement mandatory orders for people to wear masks in public, something he had previously declined to do. He also said 300 National Guard members would help with contact tracing and that enforcement of social distancing rules at businesses would be stepped up.  

But he also declined to issue a statewide mandatory mask order, as some Democrats have called for, and did not lift restrictions on localities taking tougher steps to close businesses than the state allows. Arizona has been aggressive in allowing businesses to reopen, with even nightclubs operating in the state, and localities unable to restrict them.

“There is a trend, and the trend is headed in the wrong direction, and the actions we're going to take are intended to change that direction and reverse this trend,” Ducey acknowledged at a press conference Wednesday. 

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) had sharply criticized Ducey on Tuesday for emphasizing that the state still had hospital capacity.

“I don't think it makes sense to design your policy based on whether or not there are enough hospital beds for people to die in,” she said on the KTAR radio station. “I think we should be designing our policy about how do we reduce the spread so fewer people are dying, fewer people are in the hospitals and fewer people are contracting the virus.”

“Our hospital systems are on edge and could be overwhelmed within less than three weeks,” she added. 

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The state is a key presidential battleground and has a competitive Senate race, with Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump nominee's long road to Fed may be dead end McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol McSally's final floor speech: 'I gave it my all, and I left it all on the field' MORE (R) facing a challenge from Mark Kelly, an astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D). McSally and Kelly have not jumped into the brawl over the coronavirus the way other figures in the state have. 

Hospitalizations from the coronavirus have been spiking for days in the state, with a new record of 1,582 people hospitalized on Tuesday, according to state data. Hospital bed usage hit a new high of 85 percent occupancy on Tuesday as well, the data showed. 

“The trend is such that if things continue as they are now, sometime in July we're going to bump up against that capacity [in hospitals],” Joe Gerald, a professor at the University of Arizona’s public health school, said earlier Wednesday. 

“The clock is ticking a little bit because it takes two to three weeks for any intervention to translate into fewer cases and fewer hospitalizations,” he added. 

Julia Strange, a vice president at Tucson Medical Center, said Wednesday that the hospital’s 20 intensive care unit (ICU) beds for coronavirus patients were filled and that it was transferring patients in need of an ICU to other hospitals. 

Gerald said the timing of the beginning of the spike in cases matches up with part of the cause being the lifting of the state’s stay-at-home order on May 15. 

“The opening had no plan,” Rep. Ruben GallegoRuben GallegoHispanic Caucus endorses Castro for Foreign Affairs gavel Favorites emerge as Latino leaders press Biden to appoint 5 Hispanics to Cabinet Tony Cárdenas casts himself as man to lead DCCC through fire MORE (D-Ariz.) said at a press conference on Monday highly critical of Ducey. “It did not include enough enforcement of social distancing.”

After Ducey’s announcements on Wednesday, Gallego tweeted that they are a “good start.”

Asked at the press conference on Wednesday if he had made mistakes in how the state reopened, allowing a surge of cases, Ducey mostly said he is looking forward but added to reporters, "I’m sure I made ... you guys like to write about them all the time." 

In contrast to Democratic criticism, McSally, speaking to KTAR earlier on Wednesday, said she thinks Ducey “has done a good job” on the coronavirus crisis. 

“This virus is not going away, and it's about us protecting the vulnerable while still allowing people to be able to safely return to work to put food on the table,” she added. “But we've got to do our part. This isn't just — we don't sit back and wait for government edicts. We each need to still take care of each other and do our part to stop the spread.”

Kelly, meanwhile, has not gone on the attack like other Democrats against Ducey. 

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Mike Noble, chief pollster at OH Predictive Insights in Arizona, said Kelly has been “disciplined” in his messaging. “Kelly's been doing a really good job of staying on message, staying in that center area,” he said. 

Kelly also might not want to rock the boat, Noble said. He is up 13 points over McSally in two recent polls. 

Gerald, the professor, said trends are concerning for hospitals. “We can’t sustain that level of increase indefinitely,” he said. “We will run out of space at some point.”