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'Hospitals have never been busier': Arizona healthcare system strained as even more coronavirus cases expected

In the midst of a COVID-19 surge, hospitals are adjusting to taking care of everyone, including searching for more staff to take care of those sickest with COVID-19.

Hospital leaders are concerned with what’s ahead as they continue to treat the sickest COVID-19 patients, saying because additional steps to stop the spread of the virus have not been taken by the state, they’re anticipating even more strain than there already is on the healthcare system.

According to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services, COVID-19 patients are taking up more than half of all ICU beds in the state.

“Hospitals have never been busier,” Dr. Joe Gerald with the University of Arizona said.

Gerald and his colleagues are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and modeling projections related to the virus.

“It’s involving a lot of compromises in care,” Gerald said. “The demand is so high hospitals literally have no other choice."

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Chief Clinical Officer with Banner Health said 58% of their adult ICU beds are being used by COVID-19 patients.

“These COVID-19 patients are very ill. They take a lot of care, a lot of our resources, a lot of nursing time, a lot of respiratory therapy time, and a lot of physician time to be taken care of. So one COVID-19 patient is not equal to a non-COVID-19 patient,” Bessel said.

Several of Banner’s hospitals are now operating at more than 100% capacity.

Bessel said they’re also using refrigerator trucks to expand their morgue capacity as they’re having to store two to three times more bodies than usual. Bessel said half of those are people who died from COVID-19.

At Banner’s hospitals, Bessel said some single person rooms are now housing two patients, and some of Banner’s hospitals have stopped elective surgeries.

“These are patients that need these procedures,” Bessel said.

Valleywise Health, who at one point last week had no ICU beds available, had just one on Wednesday according to Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Michael White.

White said he did have 10 beds that could have been used, but he didn’t have the staff to cover them.

Both Valleywise and Banner say they’re trying to hire new staff.

“Many people do not want to start until after Christmas so we anticipate those people starting in January,” White said.

Gerald said he and his colleagues are predicting an as bad or even worse situation into January.

“The things that we could’ve done to prevent the holidays from being as difficult as they are now have passed,” Gerald said. “So when we think about how do we make the situation better today because the size of the problem is so much bigger, the size of the solution has to match.”

Bessel said she’s been in regular contact with ADHS and has advocated for stronger mitigation measures to slow the spread.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office told 12 News the mitigation measures from over the summer are still in effect and can be enforced by local law enforcement.

“If we can’t get the case counts down, hospitals are only going to become more crowded,” Gerald said.

The hospital leaders say they’re asking everyone to continue to wear masks, stay home when possible, and keep holiday gatherings to immediate family in hope of helping slow down cases.

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