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Arizona sees 20% rise in deaths, not all directly from virus

PHOENIX — Arizona has seen a 20% increase in deaths in the first seven months of this year — and not all of them have been directly linked to the coronavirus.

Public health experts say it will take months to determine what’s driving the death rate. Possible explanations include overdoses and suicides by people struggling with isolation or unemployment during the pandemic; patients succumbing to chronic diseases after postponing hospital visits due to fears about contracting the virus there; and deaths from Arizona’s tough regular flu season, which ran from October to April.

“There are lots of ways you can see excess deaths from other causes in the midst of this,” said Dr. Bob England, a former public health director for Maricopa and Pima counties.

The Arizona Department of Health Services said it has gotten informal reports about increases in 911 calls that may suggest people are delaying essential medical care during the pandemic. It also noted that overdose deaths are increasing and some communities have reported slight jumps in suicides.

A more complete understanding of the numbers will emerge after death certificates are reviewed, the agency said,

The state has recorded more than 7,100 more deaths in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period of 2019. About 4,100 of the deaths have been a direct result of the coronavirus, leaving 3,000 deaths from other causes. In all 42,582 people died in Arizona in the first seven months of the year.

“Could some of that be associated to the isolation and loneliness? That was one of the things that we’re worried about,” Dr. Cara Christ, the state’s top public health official, acknowledged last month when asked whether there was a link between the pandemic and suicides and overdoses.

Some of the deaths may be indirectly related to the virus, said Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for disease control for the Maricopa County Health Department. For example, people who have congestive heart failure or lung disease may get a minor COVID-19 infection that worsens their underlying conditions.

“They may actually succumb from the heart failure or lung disease, and we may not even know about the COVID-19,” Sunenshine said.

Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess has written an analysis of the rising number of deaths in his jurisdiction that have occurred even as homicides and suicides declined slightly.

Pima County began seeing an increase in overdose deaths before the start of the pandemic, leaving Hess unable to conclude whether those deaths are related to the virus.

Many people assumed that there would be fewer traffic deaths during the pandemic as people work from home and spend less time driving. Hess said he found a slight increase in auto deaths in Pima County.

Other states have seen a similar increase in deaths since the pandemic began, said Zhao Chen, a chronic disease epidemiologist and professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.

Chen said Arizona’s growing population could explain part of the increase in overall deaths, though she doubts growth is the only factor.

“There are some indications that the excess number of deaths cannot be explained by the population size or the bad flu season,” Chen said.

When virus test kits were scarce earlier in the pandemic, some deaths that might have been caused by COVID-19 may have been attributed to other causes, Chen said.

England said he expects increased deaths not directly attributed to the coronavirus to continue throughout the pandemic. One reason is some people who no longer have health insurance after losing their job may do without their normal level of health care, he said.

“The virus itself and our inability to control it without seriously damaging the economy will have long-lasting health consequences, including additional deaths,” England said.

The Department of Health Services said its final report on the causes of 2020 death will be available late next year.

“It’s going to take us some time to figure out which ones are indirectly due to COVID and which ones are directly due to COVID — and if all of the increase can be attributed to COVID or if there’s something else going on as well,” Sunenshine said.

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For veterans in Pinal hospice, pinning ceremony is a special moment

CASA GRANDE -- Arizona City resident Gene Briddle says it’s never too late to thank a military veteran for their service.

As a member of a local volunteer honor guard with Honoring/Hiring/Helping our Heroes of Pinal County, Briddle is often at the bedside of dying or seriously ill veterans in hospice care, making sure they hear the simple words “thank you for your service.”

“Some of these veterans fought hard battles in the wars, especially the Korean War,” he said. “Simply hearing ‘thank you for your service’ is very impactful. It means a lot to them.”

On each visit, Briddle dons a blue uniform and conducts a pinning ceremony. Since March, Briddle has visited more than a dozen dying or seriously ill veterans in hospice care. Because of COVID-19, he conducts each ceremony alone.

Pinning ceremonies for hospice patients aim to acknowledge the sacrifices individual veterans have made. The event also gives the veterans a chance to share their own unique story.

“While we’re there, we talk to them and salute them,” Briddle said. “If they have a military veteran’s hat, we put the pin on the hat. If they don’t have one, we buy one for them. We also give them a flag.”

The ceremonies are arranged by Paul Bond, a bereavement counselor and volunteer coordinator with Hospice Family Care.

“Gene loves doing these ceremonies and loves being there for these veterans as they’re dying. He shares his time and compassion with them,” Bond said.

Bond arranges about 150 pinning ceremonies for dying or ill veterans throughout the area every year. Before COVID-19, the ceremonies were conducted by a group of volunteer veterans who belong to a local honor guard. Briddle joined the group a few years ago.

As well as visiting vets in hospice care, the group would also perform pinning ceremonies for vets who visited the Honoring/Hiring/Helping our Heroes of Pinal County’s downtown office.

And while the pinning ceremonies are just as important to veterans during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the honor guard members are in high-risk groups and are unable to attend ceremonies. Since March, Briddle has been doing the ceremonies on his own.

“I’m not concerned with getting sick,” Briddle said. “I lost my wife of 48 years last May and that changed my outlook on life. But I do take precautions when I visit a vet for the pinning ceremonies. I wear a mask. But the pinning ceremonies were more impressive when it was a group of us visiting veterans.”

The ceremonies can be emotional for the veterans as well as the families. Often, everyone in the room has tears in their eyes, he said.

“We had a vet in Eloy and planning his pinning ceremony took a while,” Briddle said. “When we finally got there, he was having a hard time breathing. We did his ceremony and a little while after we left, we found out he had passed. He had waited for us to do the pinning ceremony and to hear ‘thank you for your service,’ before letting go. It feels good knowing I’m doing something that means so much to people.”

While veterans are the focus, some ceremonies have been done for people who didn’t serve in the military.

“We did one ceremony for the wife of a veteran. She had worked for the Veterans Administration for decades. We pinned her before she passed away,” Briddle said.

During each visit with a dying veteran, Briddle asks about funeral arrangements.

“We find often, especially with spouses, they don’t know that VA burial benefits are available,” he said. “I will help with information and submitting the paperwork required for approval to be buried in a VA cemetery, all free, of course.”

Briddle, who is from Los Angeles, served in the Army in a communications role, from 1969 through 1971, during the Vietnam era.

For part of the time, he was stationed on Quemoy off the coast of China, also known as Kinmen, which at the time was subjected to a Chinese propaganda campaign that included an exchange of leaflets. Briddle collected several of the Chinese leaflets that were dropped on the island, kept them and still looks at some of them today to remember his own military service.

He said he feels lucky he wasn’t involved in combat during his own military service.

“Some of these soldiers came back from war and went back to their lives,” Briddle said. “They kept quiet and sometimes, they were never thanked for their service. I just want to make sure they hear thank you.”

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Phoenix man to run through Pinal cities during trek across state

MARICOPA — Phoenix native Jimmy Scroggins is daring to do the near impossible: run 334 miles from west to east across Arizona to raise awareness and support for childhood depression by showing kids, “You can overcome any obstacle. You can do hard things.”

Scroggins, 31, set out on his cross-state run early Monday morning. He began his journey in Quartzsite along Interstate 10, but by the end of his scheduled journey that first day, he’d nearly had it.

“That first 15-mile stretch, it really challenged me,” Scroggins said. “It honestly almost broke me, and we weren’t even (far) into it.”

With hill after hill after hill, cars whizzing by at 75 mph and the Arizona sun beating down on his back at 109 degrees, Scroggins has done everything he can to motivate himself — FaceTime friends, identify the local wildlife jumping out from behind bushes and look at the debris of various discarded and forgotten objects strewn along I-10.

Scroggins will continue on his planned route, heading down Riggs Road onto State Route 347 on Saturday, cutting through Maricopa and continuing onto Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway toward Casa Grande. From that point, he’ll run toward Coolidge along State Route 87.

He had originally planned on finishing in Willcox, but a lot of his supporters voiced their desire to be there for his big finish, so instead he’ll be swinging back around from Coolidge into Fountain Hills to finish his run in the place that he calls home, south Phoenix.

“I decided that it would be pretty awesome and heartwarming for me to finish the run right where it all started for me, right over in south Phoenix,” Scroggins said. “I grew up on 16th Street and Southern. It was a pretty rough time for me growing up. A lot of times dealing with the anxiety of a neighborhood that was trying to conform me into something I didn’t wanna be.”

ksawyer / On the Go Maps  

Jimmy Scroggins’ 334-mile journey across Arizona passed through Pinal County on Saturday.

When Scroggins was 13, his mother was murdered by her boyfriend. He struggled to stay away from the gangs and drug dealing going on in his neighborhood and felt isolated after his mother’s death.

“I was just lost. I was really young, and I was trying to figure out life like anybody else and things were tough for me. I would walk to this community center pretty much every day after school, and I would go through the park, El Reposo Park, so I figured that it would be pretty fitting for me to finish there,” Scroggins said. “I rerouted the entire 334 miles to literally just go through like every city.”

The run is, in part, to help support his nonprofit foundation 4Life, which he operates with his best friend and business partner, Ernesto Jimenez. They focus on giving back to underprivileged youth through holiday meal programs, backpack giveaways and scholarship awards. Those following Scroggins’ journey across Arizona can donate per mile to help him achieve his goal.

But the run, he said, is also a representation of the hardships people overcome and of the resiliency of the human spirit. It is as much a journey of self for Scroggins as it is a journey to show others — and especially youth who face circumstances similar to his — that hard things can be their own reward.

And for Scroggins, this is a very hard task.

“I hate running with a passion, I’m like, ‘This is dumb,’” he laughed.

“You have those runners that are like, ‘Yeah, I go out and I run and I free my mind’ and that is not me, I am not that guy,” Scroggins said. “However, … it has been really humbling. I think I’ve literally probably cried throughout these first three days — today is not even over yet — more times than I’ve probably cried in my whole life.”

When he originally set out to do this, he sought help from his seasoned running peers who told him he had “terrible running form,” but he’s since figured out a slow and steady jogging pace for the duration of his run.

His wife, Virginia, and Jimenez cheer him on from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, crawling behind him on the right-hand shoulder as he jogs along. Even the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office came out to support him, offering a police escort for the first leg of his journey.

“My wife has been just absolutely phenomenal,” Scroggins said. “She’s been making sure that we’re able to just drive back and forth. And Ernie, they both have been with me every step of the way.”

At night, Scroggins has been staying in hotels and a camper, but he is close enough to his own home at this point in his journey he was able to head home to get a quick shower in before hitting the road again. He’s averaging about 15 to 20 miles a day and crashes hard at the end of each run.

His most important item? “My CamelBak (water bottle),” he said. “It is extremely hot. Just being able to make sure that I am adequately hydrated — it’s been absolutely critical.”

Scroggins plans to finish his race in a symbolic place, on a symbolic day: his birthday. On Aug. 29, he’s scheduled to hit the streets of Phoenix for his last stretch west down Camelback Road, where he will cross his finish line at the park that once was a negative place for him.

Those interested in cheering him on can donate money per mile he runs at, or head outside to wave at him as he runs by.

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Tension high as Combs school board mulls options for reopening

SAN TAN VALLEY — Students in J.O. Combs Unified School District could return to in-person classes on Aug. 31 if the spread of COVID-19 has slowed enough per state health department metrics. The school board will hold a special meeting Aug. 27 to make this determination.

Meanwhile, teachers resumed virtual instruction on Thursday, Aug. 20.

The board chose these dates after hearing numerous community comments in the course of a three-hour special meeting Wednesday, Aug. 19. The board met behind closed doors for more than an hour before voting. Only board President Shelly Hargis voted against the plan. She commented toward the end of the meeting.

“The governor gave us some guidelines (for a safe reopening). … I think we’ve met two of them” and are close to meeting the third, Hargis said. “I feel that before COVID hit that our district was doing a huge push for the mental and physical well-being of our kids and the suicide rate.” There was a rash of East Valley teen suicides a couple of years ago. “I don’t think that’s in play anymore,” Hargis said.

Although she cited her sister as one person who wants to continue virtual learning, Hargis said she believes the majority of her constituents want students to return in-person. “That was my vote then; that’s how it will be now; however, there’s no learning going on right now, either. When we have 100-plus teachers call out (absent), we don’t have the coverage to do in-person. …

“I do want virtual learning to start effective immediately tomorrow,” Hargis said. “But I would like to work towards finding a solution to get in-person as soon as we can.” She said at Wednesday’s meeting she wanted the district to survey every employee the following day to learn who is willing to come back to school and who is not.

The previously announced first day of school on Aug. 17 was canceled due to a high number of staff absences, estimated at 40%.

“They want us to be responsible for your kids,” David Nelson, a teacher and president of the Combs Education Association, told the board. He turned to the audience to continue: “We’re trying to be responsible for your kids.”

Board members called for order a couple of times as audience members jeered Nelson.

“I’ve sat here, and I’ve heard the insults and the accusations (that) it’s political — it’s not. We set a plan based on guidelines, those guidelines have not been met, and we made the decision (to open school) anyway,” an agitated Nelson said. “I’m in that classroom. I have a bottle of blue stuff and a rag. … I don’t have gloves, I don’t have the things you want me to protect your kids with.

“This is the problem; this is why we did what we did,” he continued. “And it’s not just union members. … We don’t feel like we’re adequately prepared to protect your kids or protect ourselves. We haven’t met the benchmarks. That’s what this is about. We want to be back in front of our kids too, but not at the risk of anybody’s life. That’s the bottom line.”

But Pamela Morris told the board that teachers signed a contract to come to school and teach.

“They need to be held accountable” and not rewarded “by tying the hands of the board and the parents,” she said. Morris told the board her granddaughter in the third grade is consistently on the principal’s honor roll at Combs Traditional Academy but can’t learn online. “Just realize these kids are suffering.”

Superintendent Gregory Wyman said late Wednesday in a letter to the community that the district is in a difficult position.

“We know that the recent days have been difficult for our students and families, and that the decision made tonight will continue to generate emotion on both sides,” he said. “It is the unfortunate reality that no decision will satisfy everyone, but we will continue to make the right decisions for those who matter most: our students.”