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Returning to work led to dad's COVID-19 death, anguished daughter says

Coronavirus cases spiking in reopened states
Coronavirus cases spiking in reopened states 02:16

As Arizona contends with a record spike in coronavirus cases amid the state's move to reopen, one grief-stricken daughter is pleading for the public and government leaders to take safety more seriously. 

Lina Washington's father, Robert Washington, died of COVID-19 a week ago, and barely a month after returning to his job as a security guard at the Gila River Hotels & Casinos - Lone Butte in Chandler, Arizona. "My dad called me on May 16 fearing for his safety," she tweeted on Sunday. "He said no one was social distancing and few wore masks."

The 68-year-old Chandler resident had diabetes and was recovering from prostate cancer — health conditions that made him vulnerable to infection. He was also worried about returning to work when the casino reopened May 15, the day a state stay-at-home order in effect since mid-March had lifted, Lina Washington told CBS Arizona affiliate KPHO-TV and other local news outlets. 

But her dad needed the health benefits and a paycheck to cover the cost of insulin, rent and life insurance, she said. Her father's other options were to take an unpaid furlough or quit. That made him like millions of other U.S. workers, including many black Americans, whose precarious financial state effectively forced them back into a job that put their life on the line.

Initially told he'd spend the first day back outdoors in a golf cart patrolling the hotel and casino grounds, Washington instead was assigned the security desk, where he came into contact with people entering and leaving the casino, his daughter told the Arizona Republic. "He was exposed to people waiting in line till 4:30 in the morning with no masks," she told the newspaper, recalling a phone conversation the following day with her father.

Robert Washington took time off the next week, but returned to work May 22 and tested positive for the coronavirus eight days later, according to his daughter. He died in a local hospital on June 11.

"100% preventable"

The Lone Butte casino is one of three establishments run by Gila River Hotel & Casinos. Unlike some casinos in the Phoenix area, Gila River did not require customers to wear masks — only that its employees wear personal protective equipment. Arizona's Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has resisted calls to mandate the use of facial coverings to curb the spread of the virus, a requirement in other states including Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York.

After her dad's death, Lina Washington took to social media to decry what she views as a lackadaisical approach by public officials to keeping people safe amid the deadly disease outbreak, including allowing residents to flout standard health guidelines.

"This was a 100% preventable," Washington told the Arizona Republic. "This is not going to be the only case like this, and this is is not the only time that someone is going to lose their father because of some negligent people who don't honor the fact that this pandemic is very real."

Reached for comment, Gila River termed Washington's death "a heartbreaking situation" for the company and its workers. "We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of our Lone Butte team members," Doug Simpson, Gila River's chief security and surveillance officer, said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

The casino is committed to curbing the spread of the virus "as much as possible," added Simpson, who touted the company's increased cleaning of its properties as well as providing personal protective equipment and biweekly testing to its workers. The company now requires both employees and patrons to wear face masks, he said.

Two months before her father died, Lina Washington visited him and interviewed him on camera. "We have this coronavirus thing going around, which is scary," he told her in the March 30 video posted in his memory on YouTube. "Just hoping and praying that myself and all of my family can outlast this virus."

I love you, dad. In loving memory of Robert Edward Washington. by Lina Washington on YouTube

Arizona is among hard-hit states where masks are part of a nationwide political debate. Hundreds of medical professionals recently signed a letter calling on Ducey to require them, but the governor has left it up to cities.

"For some things, a statewide directive or executive order works very well," he said, according to the Associated Press. "If you have 12 or 13 counties that say 'pound sand' on an executive order ... it's a self-defeating executive order."

"Steep acceleration" in cases

Ducey chalks up Arizona's surging cases to increased testing, but health experts say a better way to determine if more people are getting sick is to look at the percentage of positive tests. When that increases, it means the outbreak is worsening.

Arizona has the nation's highest seven-day average positive test rate, at 17.7% — roughly double the national average and well above the 10% threshold that health officials say is concerning. It also has the most new cases per capita in the U.S. in the past 14 days. The state's leading hospital system says it's in danger of running out of beds as cases surge.

"There's a new sweep of the virus in the American Southwest," Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told CBS MoneyWatch. States that started reopening in April are now paying the price, as it's "pretty clear we needed to maintain aggressive social distancing throughout the month of May."

"In Texas, we're seeing a very steep acceleration right now. It's very dire in Houston, and Arizona is terrible as well," he said.

States face battle over face masks 09:37

"If everybody wears a mask, it can have an important effect on decreasing transmission," added Hotez, who likened fighting the virus without a vaccine to "having one hand tied behind your back."

The imperative now should be figuring out how to maintain and improve social distancing in places like bars and restaurants, and certainly requiring that masks be worn in public settings, according to Hotez.

For Robert Washington, such measures are too late.

"My father didn't deserve this," Lina Washington tweeted this week. "At-risk Arizonans don't deserve this. I'm sharing this in my rage because something has to be done about this. Someone needs to be held accountable."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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