Brenda Barton, a candidate running for the Legislative District 6, has incorrectly stated on her website that she is endorsed by the Arizona Nurses Association. Brenda Barton, a candidate running for the Legislative District 6, has incorrectly stated on her website that she is endorsed by the Arizona Nurses Association.
Photo by Becky Brisley

Republican opposition to the recommendations of medical experts during the coronavirus pandemic is costing them the support of healthcare workers.

Public trust in medical professionals is the highest it’s been in years, and some politicians are hoping to snag that goodwill for themselves — even if their policy views don’t align.

The continued spread of the coronavirus in Arizona has put a wedge between some political figures and medical experts, but recent polling suggests that public trust lies more with healthcare workers than with politicians.

Arizona has become a hotspot for the coronavirus since Gov. Doug Ducey allowed his stay-at-home order to expire on May 15. Since reopening, the number of confirmed cases of the virus has skyrocketed from just over 13,000 to more than 87,000. Hospitalizations, ventilator usage, ICU bed usage, and virus-related emergency room have all reached near-capacity, causing state health officials to authorize the implementation of crisis standards of care.

Recent polling from Pew Research found that Americans who strongly trust medical scientists to act in the best interest of the public rose from 24% in 2016 to 43% in 2020. Overall, 89% of Americans expressed confidence in medical experts.

Nurses hold the highest level of confidence — not just among healthcare workers, but out of every profession. Gallop polling has found that nurses are consistently seen as having the highest level of honesty and ethics among working professionals. Politicians, by contrast, consistently rank at the bottom in terms of trustworthiness.

Some Republicans, like former state House member Brenda Barton, hope to lean on old alliances with medical workers.  

Barton termed out of her seat in the legislature in 2018, where she served in the state House of Representatives for six years. In that time, she garnered the support of the Arizona Nurses Association (AZNA), receiving their endorsement in 2016. She did not receive their endorsement during her 2014 and 2012 campaigns.

But despite showcasing the AZNA on her official campaign website, AZNA Executive Director Robin Schaeffer says her organization has opted not to endorse Barton for the 2020 elections. Instead, the group endorsed Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, who Schaeffer says has been taking the right approach to curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

“There are three necessary steps that every Arizonan needs to take to mitigate the spread of this very serious virus,” said Schaeffer. “Wear a mask or face covering, wash hands frequently or use hand sanitizer when a sink is not available, and practice social distancing.”

Evas says the support of the AZNA and the Arizona Association of Family Physicians, a signal to voters that she will continue to prioritize access to healthcare and responsible public safety measures at the Capitol.

“I think the values of AZNA, access to healthcare, the safety of nurses, making sure they are able to do their jobs to the fullest extent of their abilities was reflected in my actions to close non-essential businesses, requiring masks, and limiting the size of gatherings,” said Evans. 

But while Evans has vocally supported all three measures — even going as far to require Flagstaff residents to wear face coverings in public spaces — Barton has been virtually absent from the conversation. Barton has said nothing publicly about the virus and did not respond to a request for comment.

In contrast, Barton’s Republican running mate, Rep. Walt Blackman, has disregarded most COVID-related safety recommendations supported by medical professionals. In addition to decrying business shutdowns and attending President Trump’s rally in Phoenix — considered to have been a potential super spreader event — Blackman has cast doubt on the effectiveness of wearing masks in public.

“I’ve been told that wearing a mask is like trying to catch mosquitos with a chain-link fence,” Blackman stated in a video posted on Facebook. “The particles are so small, it goes through the mask, in some cases.”

Guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control, which has recommended the use of face covering in public since April, state that the use of masks coupled with implementing social distancing practices can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Blackman’s comments put him at odds with medical experts nationally and locally. On Wednesday, a coalition of some of the top scientists from Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities and others announced that a stay-at-home order would be necessary to slow the spread in Arizona. 

More than 1,000 healthcare workers practicing in Arizona have also signed a petition urging state leaders to issue another stay-at-home order. Although Schaeffer did not state whether or not any AZNA endorsements would be rescinded, she characterized Blackman’s actions as unfortunate.

“Endorsement decisions were made prior to many of the recent developments regarding COVID-19,” said Schaeffer. “Unfortunately,  Representative Blackman’s actions were not available at endorsement time for our consideration.”