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Willcox City Hall closed, social distancing underway everywhere

There are now 18 people in the State of Arizona with COVID-19, including at least one in Graham County, and everyone has added a new phrase to their vocabulary “social distancing.”

Just eight days ago, the state announced it’s first COVID-19 and life continued pretty much as normal.

Then, people started hoarding toilet paper and cleaning supplies. To say it’s snowballed from there is to put it mildly. Now, pain relievers, canned goods and boxed meals can be difficult to find, although the stores are saying they aren’t short; it’s just hard to find time to restock.

Events slowly started getting cancelled and then the floodgates opened. Concerts, sports events, spring flings were suddenly pulled off calendars.

Then, it started with the schools.

In Graham County, Pima Unified School District made the decision to start spring break early because a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, prompting this week’s testing of as many as 166 children if they’re symptomatic.

Suddenly, schools started closing all over the country. Gov. Doug Ducey made the decision to close Arizona’s schools on Sunday. At least 30 states had closed schools as of Monday night.

Social distancing

On Sunday, the CDC announced they wanted mass gatherings to be limited at 50 and Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center started restricting patients’ visitors. On Monday, President Trump said no more than 10 people should gather together.

The president said the White House was not considering a national quarantine or lockdown as some media outlets reported, but he acknowledged that such an extreme action could occur in certain “hotspots.”

“At this point, not nationwide, but there are some – you know, some places in our nation that are not very affected at all but we may – we may look at certain areas,” he said.

The government also recommended that states that have seen community spread of the disease should close bars and restaurants, and that older Americans and those with other health conditions “stay home and away from other people.

There have been a slew of businesses and governments that have announced that, for now, they are opting to conduct their business behind locked doors, preferring to talk, text and email. The Arizona Range News among them, along with the City of Willcox, the City of Safford and the Graham County Chamber of Commerce.

Eastern Arizona College announced it is extending its spring break through March 27 and events or large-group gatherings of 50 or more people will be cancelled through the end of the semester. When feasible, the majority of instruction will move to distance learning when classes begin on March 30. Students with course schedules that entirely allow for remote delivery are encouraged to stay home to complete their coursework.

The Diocese of Tucson announced all parish-based public gatherings are either cancelled or suspended until April 6. This includes Masses or confirmations at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Willcox. Weddings will be restricted to 10 persons, and if Mass is celebrated only the bride and groom, if Catholic, will receive Holy Communion. Funeral Masses will be restricted to 10 persons and the congregation won’t receive Holy Communion.

Willcox government

Caleb Blaschke, Willcox City manager is working to calm people’s fears.

“We want to make sure people understand that we’re not panicking, we’re just being cautious,” Blaschke said.

The city is working on different plans for various departments.

“We’re looking at closing our library and with our library, people would be able to have pick up services where they can order books online and they could call and order them,” he said.

As for the parks, Blasche said they’re looking at cleaning the bathroom doors twice a day.

With City Hall closed, he said people can drop off or call in to make payments, they also have a deposit box. The same goes for the City Gas Company

“We’re not going to cut back on our services, we’re just changing the way we deliver,” Blaschke “We’re not in a panic mode, but we’re being cautious and ensuring that we protect our citizens and our employees and our visitors.”

The Willcox Community Center remained open Tuesday for people to vote in the Presidential Preference Election.

Willcox and Bowie schools

Willcox Unified School District Superintendent Kevin Davis said the district is doing its best to help students impacted by the schools’ closure.

“We’re doing everything we can to provide for our students whether it be through health and welfare services with lunches or breakfast type programs, or (schoolwork) packets we’re sending home with parents or through the meal delivery service that students can work on through the break so students can work on them over the break to help keep them a little more focused on school and hopefully prepared to finish the year,” Davis said.

For those depending on school lunch programs, breakfast and lunch started being provided on a to-go basis Monday. WUSD students who want to participate can pick up their meals at the back of the cafeteria through the gate on Bisbee Ave. Breakfast will start at 7:15 a.m. and lunch at 11:30 a.m. On Monday the district was working on a delivery plan for those students living out of town that was supposed to start Tuesday.

Bowie School Superintendent Wendy Conger said Bowie Schools are providing boxed meals for students to pick up. Students can come by between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to receive a meal, free of charge.

Irma Vasquez, is preparing nutritious meals for the children at no cost. Conger said she’ll deliver food boxes to anyone in Bowie.

She is working with Our Heart for Children, a nonprofit sponsored by Anne Eickenbrock, and the Willcox Food Bank, to provide food or anything else students need (including personal hygiene items) .

All they need to do is contact Conger at 520-253-0813.

Reactions

Some parents are pleased by the state’s decision.

“I feel like it was the best call to keep the spread of the virus lower. It is hard for parents working to take time off and stay home, but I’d rather keep from spreading the virus further,” said Willcox resident Amanda Berger.

Tanya McNeil, who has three kids in Safford schools and two in Pima schools, agreed.

“I think the closure was inevitable and a wise decision,” McNeil said. “Even though it may be an inconvenience, it’s much more important to slow the spread of the virus. We’ll work on making structured plans for daily learning and family activities to keep us all intellectually stimulated and keep us from going stir crazy.”

Safford resident Dusti Brantner had this to say, “I am so relieved he finally did it. Our 8-year-old daughter has asthma. When she gets even a little cold it makes breathing difficult. I’ve been stressed over her getting this. I’m OK with the kids going a week longer to prevent the spread of this virus to kids who already have health problems.”

On the other hand, Thatcher mom Kathlene Wood said, “I think precautions should be taken within reason which seems most people don’t have. Panic and fear lead to excessive and unnecessary actions which in turn leads to being the bigger issue then a virus that can be controlled.”

Three of the Pima Elementary School children who were exposed to COVID-19 last week were tested Wednesday and health officials should receive the results Thursday.

Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas said a total of 37 families showed up for the first of three clinics scheduled to be held at Pima Junior High.

However, 34 of the families did not meet the testing criteria because the children were asymptomatic, Douglas said.

“These families received information and guidance on home quarantine and educational material on COVID-19,” Douglas said. “For the students not tested, if they do develop a fever and respiratory symptoms they are encouraged to return for testing.”

Douglas described the mood as positive and the families as appreciative.

Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert said PUSD learned on March 11 a staff member had been exposed to someone with COVID-19 during an out-of-state visit the weekend prior. That staff member had worked with the fifth and sixth graders on March 10 and March 11. The decision was made to keep the school closed on March 12.

The health department is only testing the children exposed – and who are displaying symptoms – because the earliest they could have spread the virus was March 12 – when school was closed.

The staff member is the only person in Graham County to have tested positive thus far.

The health department held the clinic away from a health care setting because officials are doing what they can to minimize the risk of exposure to anyone else.

Although children who get COVID-19 typically only development mild symptoms, the fear is they could spread it to the elderly or those who have underlying health care issues.

Douglas said he wasn’t surprised so many families game to the clinic.

“Families are concerned for the wellbeing of their children. Also, they were looking for additional information and guidance on COVID-19,” Douglas said. “This novel virus in new and there are many unknowns.”

The more people are educated about the virus, the more confidence they’ll have to “cope with the reality of quarantine and self-care at home,” he said. “My main message to the community is to stay home. We have to slow the spread of this virus.”

Arizona Range News reporter Brooke Curley contributed to this report.


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Despite health officials' warnings, many Gila Valley residents unconcerned about COVID-19

Surreal. Anyone walking through Safford’s Walmart and Safeway stores this weekend can attest. There were some aisles that felt as though they came straight out of a zombie apocalypse show or a dystopian movie.

Last week, it was just the cleaning and toilet paper aisles. Saturday night at Walmart, pain relievers, canned goods, deodorant, eggs and Top Ramen were missing along with the cleaning items and TP.

Safeway was even out of plastic grocery sacks. An employee said larger stores are replenished before smaller stores and they’d run out.

Sunday morning at Safeway, one of the employees said they had 20 packages of toilet paper left when they opened. They were gone within the first three minutes. People had been waiting at the door.

Both Safeway and Walmart, starting Sunday, have reduced their hours in Safford and elsewhere to allow their employees time to sanitize and restock. There is no shortage.

Safeway’s CEO posted a message to customers on the company’s website detailing their efforts to keep employees and customers safe from COVID-19. Walmart did the same.

However, many of the people in the stores over the weekend think their neighbors are being absurd.

Although the CDC has predicted that the virus – in a worst-case scenario – could cause 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths, no one seems to believe it. There have been no deaths so far in Arizona.

Nor are most of them altering their daily lives, although the CDC is calling for people to avoid mass gatherings and maintain a six-foot distance from each other.

Safford resident Anthony Richardson spent Saturday going store to store searching for bottled water for his dogs. There’s too much salt in tap water for them, he said.

Looking at the empty shelves, he said, “I think it’s ridiculous. The media and everything has made this a mad scramble. Everyone’s got to buy more than what they need because other people are buying and trying to prepare for something to me that is overblown and you can get over easy. I’m sure if I ended up with it I’d get over it.”

Experts agree. For most who get the virus, the symptoms will be mild and recovery relatively quick.

Eden resident Richard Brown has three children in Pima schools, which is where the first Graham County case of COVID-19 was discovered.

“They shut down the Pima School the other day on a panic. Somebody got sick at school and they shut down the school because they panicked,” Brown said. “To me, it’s ignorant.”

Brown blamed it all on the media, singling out CNN and FOX News.

“I’m not worried because it doesn’t kill you,” he said. “They’ve blown it out of proportion. You had a better chance of dying of the Spanish flu than the coronavirus.”

Terra Blair, a Thatcher resident who works as a personal shopper, was at Safeway Sunday morning looking for baby wipes for her 3-year-old son. She found a couple of packages.

“I think it’s insane. I think people have lost their minds. I work in retail and I came here because where I work is totally wiped out,” Blair said.

She thinks a lot of people are on edge, fearing travel restrictions. Others are unreasonably afraid of contracting the virus, she said.

“It’s only got a 2 percent death toll and aside from being highly contagious, most people recover when they’re at home,” Blair said. “People only get mild symptoms and I think people are overly concerned for something that’s not scary. We’re making it a lot scarier than it really is.”

Carmen Burnham Tellez, an 80-year-old Safford resident, was walking around Walmart Saturday with a sanitizing wipe in her hand. She always does that, though. Overall, she said she has mixed feelings.

“I think it’s silly. I think it’s getting out of hand, but who knows, they could be right with this virus coming around,” Burnham Tellez said. “It’s getting out of hand, but it’s scary, too, because we never know, if it’s really that contagious.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter, she said.

“We have to leave it in God’s hands and see where it’s going to end,” Burnham Tellez said. “I was in El Paso yesterday and it’s the same thing, everything is going, going, gone.”

The people in Willcox are suffering as well. Asked their opinions via Facebook, many chimed in with similar responses.

This from Belle Cowart:

“There is not a scrap of toilet paper, paper towels or disinfectant in our town as well as the surrounding towns. Cold medicine is flying off of the shelf. My friends and I are trying to get together and pool our resources to find enough to provide for some of the more at-risk people and children in our community because all of the able-bodied people are hoarding! It’s absolutely insane.”

Deanna Rivas had this to say: “My life hasn’t changed except for being annoyed at ignorant people hoarding necessities at the grocery store. Zero consideration for anyone else, especially those with infants and children. As far as I know bottled water or toilet paper isn’t a cure for any virus. Safeway and other stores need to put a limit on purchases.”

Amanda Perkins had a lot to say, too.

“I’m upset for the family of the special-needs boy at church this morning who was unable to change him properly when he soiled his diaper. They’ve been unable to find diapers or baby wipes anywhere. I’m upset for a family member who has bad allergies and really needs to mow their property but they can’t find the masks they use. I’m upset for my children’s great-grandfather who has been forced to cancel much-needed medical maintenance appointments because he is 83 and most at-risk. I’m upset for a friend who has waited and planned for months to spend his birthday with his little girl in Belgium but has now been forced to cancel all travel plans. I’m upset with my fellow man for being selfish and gluttonous when others are in need. And most of all I’m upset with the media for spreading fear and hyping it all up instead of sharing messages of hope. I’ve seen small slivers of hope when others have offered up something they have in order to help those in need, mostly here in my own small town. The entire situation has been eye-opening to say the least.”

And, VeroniKa BedFord: “Hasn’t really changed in a drastic way. We should be considerate of others and help those who really need it. Spread positivity and kindness.”

The coronavirus is also having an impact on other aspects of daily life.

At St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, a notice from Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger asks people who are sick to “stay home from Mass as an act of charity.”

Pastors have been asked not to use the chalice during Holy Communion and to distribute the Holy Communion by hand. Parishioners also should refrain from using the Holy Water fonts and from holding hands during the Our Father Prayer. When expressing the “Sign of Peace” parishioners shouldn’t touch any longer.

Safford resident Pauline Stidum typically goes to 7 a.m. Mass on Sundays. She hasn’t seen a decline in attendance yet.

“I’m not allowing it to affect me, I’m just taking the precautions that they tell us to do and not panicking because you know what? God’s going to take care of everything for us,” she said. “We just have to learn from this and have faith that He will take care of us.”

She hopes the pandemic instills some lessons.

Like what?

“To always be cautious of how you take care of yourself, how you take care of the hygiene that you’re already supposed to do anyway,” Stidham said. “Maybe people will start to do it a little more often as a habit, not just as a scare.”

Safford resident Felix Knight was at The River non-denominational community church Sunday. He’d also attended services there Saturday night.

“There wasn’t as many people as usual. We have somewhat older people in the congregation and with immune systems and that kind of thing,” Knight said. “We’re all just trying not to be too scared and trust in everything we trust in.”

Like St. Rose, the church and its members are making an extra effort to keep everything sanitized.

“We’re doing elbow bumps instead of hugging and shaking hands and just trying to not let too much panic and fear hit,” Knight said. “You have to be cautious and we realize if you gather in service there’s a little bit more of a chance, but you’ve got to trust in the Lord, too, though.”

As far as the grocery store, Knight said he only stocked up on cereal because it was spring break for the kids.