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VERIFY: No, hospital bed capacity and staffing shortages this season are not close to previous years

Hospitals around the Valley have said that being at 90% capacity is not normal, even during the viral respiratory season that takes place during the winter months.

ARIZONA, USA — Hospitals and ICUs in Arizona saw the highest total amount of their beds use on Sunday since the spike of COVID-19 cases in July and are facing sweeping staff shortages due to the pandemic.

Total ICU bed usage on Nov. 25 was at 90%, with beds in use by COVID-19 patients at 30%, and total inpatient bed usage was at 88%, with 26% being used by COVID-19 patients. 

RELATED: Arizona's total ICU bed occupancy at 90%: Graphs show how COVID-19 increased over last 7 weeks

Many 12 News viewers have asked whether hospitals and ICUs are usually this close to capacity during this season because of other viral respiratory illnesses like the common cold and influenza that are common during the winter months.

We contacted Valleywise Health, Banner Health, the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, and UA public health expert Joe Gerald to find out how the medical bed usage and staffing shortages are this year compared to previous years.

THE QUESTION

Did hospitals face the same amount of high bed capacity and staffing shortages during the holiday seasons of past years that they are this year?

THE ANSWER

No, the bed capacity and staffing shortages that hospitals are facing now in this holiday season during the coronavirus pandemic are abnormal compared to other years in the past. 

WHAT WE FOUND

Let's focus on hospital and ICU capacity first.

Hospitals in Arizona do typically see a rise in bed use during the winter months, the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association's Communications Director Holly Ward said. This rise is usually attributed to snowbirds coming back to Arizona and more people getting the flu and needing to come to the hospitals.

But this year, COVID-19 is added to the normal reasons someone would go to the hospital during this season. The added strain of this easily spreadable and potentially deadly virus made that usual rise increase even further this year.

Hospital groups Valleywise Health and Banner Health both held news conferences on Nov. 24 to give an update on how their hospitals are managing during the pandemic. The information they provided also points to abnormal increases in bed usage.

The Valleywise Health hospital network said that the bed capacity seen at their hospitals recently is above average for the health system, even during the snowbird winter.

RELATED: 'A very dark winter': Arizona's largest hospital chain racing to hire workers to keep up with new surge

"We usually do not run at a 90% ICU capacity," Dr. Michael White of Valleywise Health said during the news conference.

The Banner Health hospital network said that they are usually at a high capacity during the winter months. However, recent projections show they could potentially hit 125% bed capacity in their hospitals in mid-December or early January due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"While these numbers may be similar to numbers we have experienced previously, some of that is being fed by a disease that is different than what we have taken care of previously in past winters," Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said in the news conference.

She also touched on another unique issue hospitals are facing during the pandemic winter: dire medical staff shortages. It is important for hospitals to have enough beds, but hospitals are also running out of staff to take care of the patients.

"Individuals who have COVID-19 that are in our hospitals are very sick and take a lot of staff to take care of them," Dr. Bessel said.

"Our staff are having to wear additional PPE as well. This, combined with the spread of the virus in communities, makes their job much more difficult, it makes them less efficient in being able to provide care, and places a significant stress that our healthcare system is experiencing as we care for COVID-19 patients going into the surge."

RELATED: Hospitals to face 'major crisis' soon: 3 main takeaways from UArizona's recent COVID-19 report

Dr. Bessel said that Banner's hospitals in Arizona are in what's like a nation-wide competition to hire the personnel needed to mend their large staffing shortages. Banner has reportedly hired 1,000 people recently, but still needs 900 more to be able to run smoothly during the current spike.

Joe Gerald, a public health expert from the University of Arizona, said this is happening across the country. While it is a priority to give care to a person who needs care, nurses and doctors are still needed to provide that necessary care.

"Individual participants within these hospitals will move heaven and earth and make extraordinary sacrifices to deliver as much care as humanly possible, but the question becomes how compromised does that care become?" Gerald said. 

"In New York, during the peak of the crisis, they weren't refusing entry to sick patients. They were caring for them in the hallway. They started having each nurse take care of 15 patients rather than their usual capacity of eight patients. How are the lives and well-being of our healthcare professionals compromised when they have to do that for insane periods of time? These are humans we're talking about."

The Arizona Department of Health Services updates its hospital and ICU capacity numbers daily on their dashboard. See the updates for yourself at their site here or on the 12 News Coronavirus page here.

Stay home, Stay healthy, Stay connected" - that's what the state is asking of fellow Arizonans in the continued effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

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