Vice President Pence backs Arizona business closures in coronavirus hotspot

Vice President Mike Pence implored people in Arizona to wear masks and support business closures as the state reports record infections, deaths and emergency room visits.

Pence wore a mask when he descended the steps of Air Force Two in Phoenix and greeted Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey with an elbow bump at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on July 1. Ducey also bumped elbows with others traveling with the vice president, including Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Rear Admiral John Polowczyk, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

The group then walked a short distance to a small airport building where Pence was scheduled to hear from Phoenix-area health officials.

Pence said the federal government is sending 500 health workers to Arizona, which officials say is seeing the highest rate of new cases in the nation.

"We're gonna make sure Arizona has whatever it takes to meet this moment to slow the spread, to flatten the curve, to save lives," said the vice president. "I've instructed the acting secretary of Homeland Security to move out immediately on providing the additional doctors and nurses and technical personnel."

Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

Pence did not elaborate on what type of health care workers would be sent to Arizona but said they were requested by Ducey.

There have been roughly 558 new cases reported per 100,000 people in Arizona over the past two weeks, ranking the state first in the country for new cases per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Arizona health officials reported 4,878 new confirmed cases — a number comparable to recent daily case totals in larger states such as Florida and California, which have three to six times as many people as Arizona.

Other alarming new highs in Arizona included 2,876 hospitalizations and 1,289 ER visits for positive or suspected virus infections. The number of reported deaths in a day also hit a new record of 88, but that may include health officials reviewing death certificates for links to COVID-19.

The new data brings the total number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona to 84,092 and the total number of related deaths to 1,720.

Pence cautioned that the more people do to stop the spread of the virus, “the quicker we can get Arizona’s economy growing, get our kids back to school.”

Pence also threw his support behind Ducey.

“President Trump and I fully support the responsible steps that he’s taken,” the vice president said.

With beds quickly filling, Arizona’s hospitals are squeezing two beds into rooms intended for one patient and have been given authority to ration care if they can’t adequately treat all patients.

“Our objective would be that that would never happen in Arizona or anywhere else in the United States of America,” Pence said about the care of patients.

Pence met with Phoenix area health care workers and also held a private political meeting. He was in Phoenix for less than three hours and did not leave the airport property during that time.

The hastily arranged Phoenix trip is a replacement for canceled events that were supposed to happen on Tuesday. Pence had planned to address a “Faith in America” campaign event in Tucson and to meet with Ducey in Yuma.

Ducey thanked Pence and the president for responding to state requests.

"Whatever we have asked for and needed, whether it was increased testing or further support on contact tracing or personal protective equipment from face guards to gowns, the answer has been yes, and with urgency"

MAP: Arizona Coronavirus cases by zip code

Pence credited Ducey's leadership for closing bars, gyms and limiting large gatherings, but both the governor and the White House have faced public criticism for how the pandemic has been handled as cases rise across the country.

"When the president tapped me to lead the White House coronavirus taskforce, we had one mission and that was to save lives and at the end of the 45 days to slow the spread, our mission adjusted.. that was to save lives and to open up America again," said Pence.

In a bid to curb the virus’ spread, Ducey ordered gyms and movie theaters to close for 30 days. He also postponed the start of school until mid-August.

River tubing businesses have also closed after images over the weekend showed large numbers of tubers on the Salt River without masks. On July 1, regulators suspended the liquor licenses for a café and a rooftop beach club in Phoenix that disobeyed Ducey’s order to shut down. Another chain of gyms also has defied the governor’s order, leading police to cite several of its locations for being open Tuesday.

The vice president did bring up a potential vaccine that could be ready by the end of the year.

Worldwide, the number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported numbers because many people haven’t been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough for most people. But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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Continuing Coverage

 Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud and Terry Tang contributed to this report.