Home Health News Arizona's first coronavirus death: Phoenix learned employee had COVID-19 after he died – AZCentral

Arizona's first coronavirus death: Phoenix learned employee had COVID-19 after he died – AZCentral

10 min read


Phoenix officials and managers in the city’s Aviation Department first learned that an aviation employee had COVID-19 when the Maricopa County Department of Public Health called to inform them of that several days after the man had died.

On March 17, the employee’s family notified the aviation department that the man had died. On March 20, the health department notified the city that the man died of COVID-19 brought on by the new coronavirus.

In the wake of this news, the city and aviation department scrambled to inform coworkers and close contacts that they may have been exposed to the virus, as well as to publicly acknowledge that Arizona’s first coronavirus victim was a city employee.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health is releasing no additional information about the county’s first COVID-19 death, including how the man might have contracted the new coronavirus, when he was tested or how long it took to receive results.

But the situation highlights the presence of community spread in Maricopa County and the need for people to act as if anyone they come in contact with could have the virus and use social distancing and other strategies to prevent its spread. 

Timeline of the response to the death

The Arizona Department of Health Services and Maricopa County Department of Public Health first released the news of Arizona’s first COVID-19 death in a joint statement on Friday, March 20. It described the victim as in his 50s with underlying health conditions.

Nearly two hours later, the city publicly acknowledged that the man was employed by the aviation department.

He worked in the Aviation Administration building on Buckeye Road, not at Sky Harbor Airport itself. The administration building is not connected to the terminals and employees there do not have daily interaction with the traveling public.

For privacy reasons, the city can’t disclose the exact day the man last worked at the office but did say he had not been in the office for more than a week. Julie Watters, a spokesperson for the city, said the aviation department was not informed that the man  was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 nor that he was being tested for coronavirus. Watters said the city learned from his family he had passed away on March 17.

Watters told The Arizona Republic that the first notification that the employee tested positive for the virus came when the county health department contacted the city at 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 20. 

By 7 p.m., the joint statement from the Arizona Department of Health Services and Maricopa County Department of Public Health went out notifying the public about the first COVID-19 death in Arizona.

A half hour later aviation department management began notifying employees it knew had been in close contact with the deceased employee, Watters said.

At 8:20 p.m., Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher sent an email notifying the city’s  15,000 employees about the situation. Employees also received alerts by text message.

At 8:50 p.m., the city confirmed publicly that the victim was an aviation employee.

On Saturday morning, aviation management ordered a thorough cleaning and sanitizing of aviation facilities and the administrative building. Watters said many aviation department employees are teleworking, and management strongly encouraged “all other employees to utilize teleworking opportunities as soon as possible.”

What’s next for aviation employees

More than 300 employees work in the Aviation Administration building, which has three floors. Watters said it is reasonable to believe the man could have come in contact with a few dozen other employees. 

The public health department is notifying man’s close contacts, providing information about the virus and asking them to monitor for symptoms. If they have symptoms, they are asked to contact their health-care provider. 

Sonia Singh, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, declined to provide additional details about the man’s death. 

“We know we have community spread of COVID-19 in Maricopa County. Therefore, we need to think about this like how we think about flu — that there are people out there who have it all over the county, and whether they’ve been confirmed by a lab test or not, we are all likely to be exposed,” Singh told The Republic. 

COVID-19 symptoms and precautions

Signs of COVID-19 include fever, cough, runny nose and difficulty breathing. It is believed that symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Here are recommendations from the Maricopa Department of Public Health about how to reduce your chances of contracting the virus:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds to rid them of germs picked up by touching surfaces that may have been exposed through an infected person’s sneezes or coughs.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth. This keeps germs on your hands from entering your body.
  • Avoid people who are sick.
  • Avoid groups of 10 people or more.
  • Stay home if you are sick so you do not expose others.
  • Avoid unnecessary physical contact with others.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram. 

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