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Arizona National Guard work picks up as virus cases rise

MESA, Ariz. — The Arizona National Guard stepped up its efforts to bolster the supply of food Thursday as a few dozen soldiers packed boxes at food banks seeing a surge in demand and others prepared to move goods between warehouses and grocery stores.

Thursday’s food bank missions in Mesa and Tucson were among the first since Gov. Doug Ducey activated the Guard last week in response to the coronavirus outbreak. They come as state health officials said there is now widespread community spread of the virus from person to person.

For now, the Guard has about 750 members activated, and its mission is limited to assisting grocery stores and food banks. But Ducey last week said he may need to activate as many as 5,500 guardsmen for missions such as building hospitals, organizing a medical corps or assisting law enforcement.

At United Food Bank in Mesa, about two dozen soldiers wearing latex gloves worked alongside volunteers from a nearby high school to pack more than 1,000 bags of food in less than an hour. They walked by pallets of food, grabbing green beans, applesauce, kidney beans, peas, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese, cream of mushroom soup and rice for each bag.

The food will be distributed through drive-up service at the Mesa Convention Center on Friday. Last Friday, United Food Bank served 1,200 families, more than double the typical demand of 500. It’s expecting 2,000 this week, said Dave Richins, president and CEO. At the same time, many volunteers have canceled their shifts.

“The ability for me to actually come and help and do things like this is — not to sound too cliche — but what I’m meant to do. This is what I see as my purpose,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Muños, 29, a Northern Arizona University student who joined the National Guard after finishing a nine-year active duty stint with the Army.

Muños, originally from Safford in eastern Arizona, said juggling his online schooling with his Guard activation has made for long days. But his professors have been understanding.

Guardsmen have served earlier missions at St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix.

The number of known coronavirus cases in Arizona rose to 508 with eight dead, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported.

The Pima County Health Department announced Thursday that the man in his 70s had health conditions that may have put him at higher risk. It was the county’s second coronavirus death.

More than half of the coronavirus deaths have been in Maricopa County. All but two eastern counties — Gila and Greenlee — now have cases and are subject to business restrictions imposed by Ducey.

Counties with known cases of COVID-19 are subject to a state order to close bars, indoor gyms and certain other businesses and to allow restaurants to provide only takeout and pickup service. The Navajo Nation has reported 71 cases in Arizona and New Mexico, up 20 from a day earlier.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

With large sectors of the economy locked down, the number of unemployment claims has soared, shattering earlier records.

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona is seeing double the demand for food that it saw at this time last year, said Norma Cable, a spokeswoman. About 30 guardsmen helped pack bags at a Tucson warehouse Thursday.

“We do have food available, it’s just a question of getting it into that bag and getting it assembled and getting it out,” Cable said. “That’s the tricky part.”

Arizona’s largest homeless shelter says it has received a grant of $50,000 from the Arizona Lottery to keep operating during the pandemic, as nonprofits worry that it is only a matter of time before the virus explodes among the thousands of people living on the streets in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Lisa Glow, who oversees Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix, said Thursday the money comes at a critical time when providers need to spend more for cleaning and providing educational materials aimed at keeping homeless people safe. No cases were reported yet at her shelter, Glow said.

The shelter houses 470, but the population has slowly dropped to 370 people over the last 10 days so sufficient social distancing can be guaranteed between beds, Glow said.

In other actions, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office announced the suspension of work furlough and work release programs starting Friday evening to prevent inmates from leaving and re-entering the jail system daily.

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Associated Press writers Paul Davenport, Anita Snow and Terry Tang contributed.

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