What Arizona must do to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19

May 7, 2020 2:10 pm

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Like all states across the country, Arizona is experiencing unprecedented challenges and terrible loss of life in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Already, more than 9,900 of our fellow Arizonans have fallen ill, and, tragically, 450 have died of COVID-19, according to state health officials

While Gov. Doug Ducey has taken some steps to flatten the curve, these numbers increase daily. Without access to widespread testing, public health authorities fear that the true numbers may be much higher and will continue to climb. While no Arizonan has gone untouched by this crisis, thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors are at serious risk of falling through the cracks: the incarcerated population. 

Currently, about 55,000 people are incarcerated in Arizona’s prisons and jails, and thousands of correctional facility staff are directly in harm’s way. As a hospital physician, I’m privileged to join our dedicated healthcare workers and first responders on the frontlines in the fight to save lives and prevent needless suffering.

The crowded living conditions within our state correctional facilities make them ideal for the rapid transmission of infection among incarcerated people and facility staff. In fact, less than 1% of incarcerated people in Arizona’s prisons have been tested. Already, nearly 70 incarcerated people have tested positive. Based on self-reporting, at least 46 people who work in Arizona prisons have also tested positive. 

The documented number of people tested is dangerously low for such a high infection rate. Incarcerated people are unable to effectively practice social distancing and frequently lack access to basic healthcare or regular access to hygiene measures. 

‘Much worse than a cruise ship’: Prisoners’ lives at risk from COVID-19

Arizona’s Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation & Reentry (ADCRR) has not been able to sufficiently improve the correctional healthcare system. And reports of unsafe conditions persist, despite the current public health crisis. I worry that the current prison health system cannot ensure the health of the incarcerated individuals in its care and the thousands of correctional officers, healthcare workers, and other facility staff who move between the community and facilities daily. 

If left unchecked, the spread of COVID-19 within Arizona’s correctional system will harm our hospitals and healthcare system. Prisons and jails lack the necessary equipment to treat large numbers of seriously or critically ill COVID-19 patients. These severely ill patients will necessarily be transferred to nearby medical facilities for appropriate treatment, potentially overwhelming hospital bed or ICU bed capacity in the state. 

We are in this fight to flatten the curve together. Action by state leaders to reduce the incarcerated population will help make all Arizonans safer. 

The governor must use his executive authority to release people charged with non-violent offenses and elderly individuals from prison. Government leaders in other states have already taken similar actions, and Arizona needs to do the same to ensure the health of our communities. 

During my time serving in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I assisted with the domestic response to Ebola in 2014. There are lessons from this experience that apply to our current predicament. Trust in our medical professionals and public health officials to guide our path. Focus our resources on widespread testing and contact tracing. 

And, most of all, there is no place for politics. Doing what is in the best interest of the public health and welfare must never be a Democratic or Republican issue – it is a human issue and moral imperative. 

It is not too late to save lives in Arizona. Ducey wisely extended the stay at home order here in Arizona until May 15 to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Now, I urge the governor to take bold steps to prevent this impending correctional facility crisis to the great benefit of every Arizonan.

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Matt Heinz
Matt Heinz

Matt Heinz is a medical doctor who works as a hospitalist at Tucson Medical Center. He represents District 2 on the Pima County Board of Supervisors and was a member of the Arizona House of Representatives from 2009-2013. He is also a former official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.