Rise in COVID-19 Cases Could Push Arizona’s Hospitals—and Staff—to Their Limits

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By Calah Schlabach

November 25, 2020

“The entire country is surging at the same time. This is significantly different than what Arizona experienced in the summer.”

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases could push hospital staff and hospital bed capacity to the limit in coming weeks, particularly if people are not careful over Thanksgiving, an Arizona hospital official said Tuesday.

Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said its projections show the system will be using 125% of its licensed hospital beds by Dec. 4 as it grapples with the usual winter rise in patients and the sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. She compared this holiday weekend to Memorial Day weekend, when unrestricted gatherings were followed by a sharp spike in coronavirus cases.

“If you reflect back in May, you know that Memorial Day weekend was a significant catalyst that caused continued exponential growth of our COVID pandemic here in the state of Arizona,” Bessel said in a press conference Tuesday.

Widescale Surge

Unlike May, however, when Arizona was one of the few states facing a COVID-19 surge, the current outbreak is widespread. That means hospitals in the state will be hard-pressed to find relief workers from other states, Bessel said, even if they can work around the shortage of beds.

“We have been accumulating pharmaceutical supplies, beds and ventilators since the surge in the summer and we believe that we are prepared,” she said. “What we will have a shortage of will be staff.”

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services said the agency is not able to comment on projections from Banner or any other external organization. But Holly Poynter said that while “hospital ICU bed availability has decreased over the past few weeks, there is still adequate capacity in Arizona’s hospitals.”

The department’s COVID-19 dashboard showed that, as of Monday, 89% of ICU beds in the state were occupied, leaving 192 beds available. That is more than were available at the height of cases in the summer, Poynter noted.

Bessel’s comments come just days after Arizona health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued pleas to the public to tone down holiday celebrations, staying home, limiting the size of gatherings, wearing masks and meeting outside where possible, among other steps.

“The best mitigation that you can do as an individual out there, is to keep your circle tight, once you break that circle risk goes up,” Bessel said.

Bessel said Banner just hired 1,000 out-of-state staff to work the winter surge that Arizona hospitals normally face, and it is looking to hire more. But “the entire country is surging at the same time. This is significantly different than what Arizona experienced in the summer.”

Healthcare Workers in High Demand

In a normal winter, she said, 14,000 positions might be posted for out-of-state medical workers; this week alone, 20,000 positions were posted.

While Banner often runs at a high capacity in winter, Bessel said the COVID-19 patients being admitted this winter “are very sick. They take a lot of staff to take care of them and this adds extra load” on staff.

“It’s all of these factors that add up to a significant, significant stress that our healthcare system is experiencing as we care for COVID patients going into the surge,” Bessel said.

If Banner gets to 125% of bed capacity, Bessel said it would “cause quite a bit of stress on our health care system,” but she does not think it would require drastic steps like “a triage situation.”

“We have a lot of plans in place to be able to meet that demand, but it is going to be stressful on our healthcare system and we won’t be the only one.”

Poynter said Arizona DHS has put a number of measures into place to help hospitals manage bed capacity, including a “surge line” that allows hospitals that don’t have the capacity to care for a patient to search online and find an available bed.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association said hospitals will be able to share the load across the state.

“The good news is hospitals have come together during this pandemic response,” said Holly Ward, the association spokesperson. “Chances are, we will see spikes in the communities. But we are very optimistic that we won’t be in the situation where it’s statewide – there, there are no beds available.”

Bessel stressed that the 125% projection is just that – a projection – and that what Arizonans do over the weekend can keep hospital beds open for people who need care.

“Strong mitigation now will help us not get to that 125%. I ask everybody out there to take personal accountability, especially as it relates to this holiday week,” she said.

“I know it’s a very significant holiday that we have with Thanksgiving,” Bessel said. “I asked everybody to think about what Thanksgiving 2021 can look like, and please do your part.”

Continue Reading: Mayors to Ducey: Can You Please Do Something—Anything—About COVID-19?


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