First COVID-19 case reported in Arizona 2 years ago: What's happened, what's to come

Jan. 26, 2022 marks two years since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Arizona.

As some expressed cautious optimism that Arizona’s surge of COVID-19 will soon peak, public health experts, overworked health care workers and former Arizona State University students reflected Wednesday on the anniversary of the state’s first coronavirus case.

It was the start of what has now been a grueling two-year ordeal.

"It’s just a staggering effect, something that has now become the leading cause of death here in Arizona ... easily outpacing both heart disease and cancer," Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said during a virtual news briefing.

Since that first case, many others have tested positive for COVID-19. According to numbers from AZDHS on Jan. 26, there are a total of 1,799,503 cases in Arizona, and 25,899 total deaths. On Jan. 26 alone, AZDHS officials reported more than 18,229 new positive cases and 275 deaths.

It’s the highest daily count of deaths seen during the pandemic, LaBaer said.

Dr. Michael White, chief clinical officer of Phoenix-based Valleywise Health, remembers wondering how health care systems and hospitals would prepare for someone with the virus coming in. Today, like other hospitals, Valleywise is consumed with trying to juggle a high volume of patients for the highly transmissible omicron variant or other issues. Meanwhile, other surgeries get postponed and health care workers are emotionally taxed.

"We’ve seen people that have left health care that need a break from being able to do this work because it is hard work," White told reporters.

As of Tuesday, statewide hospitalizations due to COVID-19 dipped slightly to 3,511.

Valleywise is treating 70 patients for COVID-19 with 10 of them in the ICU — the most in this wave. But it’s not far off from the highest they’ve ever seen — 88 in January 2021 — according to White. But he is hopeful that their hospitalizations will crest by the end of this week or early next week.

LaBaer concurred that things could peak by the beginning of February. Data indicates Arizona’s seven-day average of new cases has started decreasing the past two days.

ASU student was Arizona's first case

It was Jan. 26, 2020, when Arizona’s first coronavirus case surfaced, bringing the nationwide total to five. The infected person lived in Maricopa County, had ties to ASU and had a history of travel to Wuhan, China, state health officials said at the time.

At the time, the statement merely mentioned the ‘2019 Novel Coronavirus,' and the disease had no official name. The disease we now know as COVID-19 was officially named as such on Feb. 11, 2020.

Like U.S. health officials, ASU administrators tried to squelch panic and reassured students they were safe from the virus. Still, many decried having to be on campus. Within two days, nearly 20,000 signed an online petition to cancel classes.

It wasn’t until mid-March 2020 that ASU transitioned to remote learning. Students were given a choice of learning environment during the following semester and through spring 2021. It was last fall that the school fully returned to in-person.

ASU also banned students, faculty and staff who travel on behalf of the university from going to China. Meanwhile, students of Asian descent almost immediately faced being shunned.

Aretha Deng, a junior then, still remembers sitting down a day after the news broke at a communal table where several students had their stuff spread out.

"I sat down and within like a minute or so they gathered their stuff and they left," said Deng, who graduated in May and now lives in Modesto, California. That same week her friend was in an elevator when a man going to the same floor "proceeded to ask my friend who’s also Chinese American ‘Are you Chinese?’ My friend said yes and the guy got off at (another) floor."

Mezquite Nguyen, who went by Tevinh at the time and is non-binary, was a senior and president of the ASU Asian/Asian Pacific American Students’ Coalition. They remember writing a news release "to call out people using quote-unquote ‘public health’ rhetoric and just fears of coronavirus to justify xenophobic and racist sentiments."

There have been more than 10,000 anti-Asian hate incidents nationwide in the last two years, according to the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center.

"It’s very weird to look back," said Nguyen, who now lives in Austin, Texas. "At that time, a lot of people were doubting the severity of the racism and xenophobia."

What has changed since Jan. 26, 2020?

Since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Arizona, the state, along with much of the world, is still struggling to overcome the fast-mutating virus that causes COVID-19.

"I don’t think any of us could've predicted we would still be dealing with it to the magnitude we are, two years after the initial case," said Dr. Michael White, Chief Clinical Officer with Valleywise Health.

Although there has been major developments in vaccines and treatments, cases and hospitalizations are surging once again, and hospitals still dealing with lack of staffing and an influx of patients. 

Two years ago, researchers had hoped that herd immunity would develop, but that possibility has now faded.

"The models that we worked with in the early days made the assumption that once you had seen the virus and were immune, you couldn’t get it again," said Dr. Joshua LaBaer with the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute. "Now with omicron, that’s shown us if you’ve had the infection before, you can still get it again. That means it’s never going to be fully gone."

While the pandemic lingers, some like LaBaer are trying to highlight the positive. Unlike two years ago, there were no vaccines.

"Just imagine where we would be if an omicron variant struck us and we did not have some degree of vaccination that could protect us against severe illness," LaBaer said. "I think the outcomes would be even more devastating."

Virus remains unpredictable

The world has seen new variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 emerge, with delta and omicron being two of the more prominent variants that have circulated.

Now, according to some scientists, a new sub-variant of omicron has been found in Arizona. It seems the ongoing lesson Arizonans are learning is that the virus is unpredictable.

"Currently, we have sequenced 29 cases of the omicron ba2 variant," said Efrem Lim, an assistant professor with ASU.

"We’ll have to see how it goes over the next few weeks, whether it becomes dominant. It’s too early for us to predict anything at this point," said Dr. White.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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COVID-19 symptoms

Symptoms for coronavirus COVID-19 include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. These, of course, are similar to the common cold and flu. 

Expect a common cold to start out with a sore or scratchy throat, cough, runny and/or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms are more intense and usually come on suddenly, and can include a high fever. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear more slowly. They usually include fever, a dry cough and noticeable shortness of breath, according to the World Health Organization. A minority of cases develop pneumonia, and the disease is especially worrisome for the elderly and those with other medical problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.

RELATED: Is it the flu, a cold or COVID-19? Different viruses present similar symptoms

COVID-19 resources

CDC Website for COVID-19 (In Spanish/En Español)

AZDHS Website for COVID-19 (In Spanish/En Español)

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