Delta variant continues to strain Arizona hospitals, nearly all patients are unvaccinated

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PHOENIX – The delta variant of COVID-19 is straining health systems across Arizona, but health officials said Wednesday there’s a way to help: Get vaccinated. Officials at one major Phoenix hospital said nearly all their COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, and an ASU expert expressed fears that a deadlier variant is yet to come.

At Valleywise Health, Maricopa County’s health care system, the number of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients has jumped to nearly 97%, said Dr. Michael White, the chief clinical officer. Two weeks ago, that rate was 93%, according to AZ Family.

The number of cases and hospitalizations continues to rise throughout the state, and officials are growing increasingly concerned. Three major health organizations – Valleywise Health, Banner Health and Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute – held news conferences Wednesday to provide updates on COVID-19 trends.

The rate of patients needing hospitalizations or acute care remains fairly steady at Valleywise and Banner Health hospitals. Out of Valleywise’s 38 COVID-19 patients, two are pediatric patients and 14 are in the intensive care unit. Banner hospitals, which treat 44% of Arizona’s COVID-19 patients, have 522 ICU patients.

Both health systems are experiencing an increase in cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief clinical officer at Banner Health, noted this “unseasonable spike” isn’t typically seen during the summer months.

Because RSV symptoms nearly are identical to COVID-19, White and Bessel both urged Arizonans to get tested immediately if they or family members feel sick.

Nurse shortages

As the delta variant spreads throughout the state, hospitals continue to face overwhelming shortages of staff members.

Valleywise reported 400 open positions across the organization, including about 150 bedside nurse positions.

“We continue to run 10 to 15 nurses short on a daily basis,” White said.

On Sept. 1, Gov. Doug Ducey announced a $60 million initiative to support staffing for hospitals that administer monoclonal antibody treatments or institute other methods of reducing COVID-19 hospitalizations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, monoclonal antibodies may help prevent infection by helping the immune system “recognize and respond more effectively to the virus.”

Because RSV shares nearly identical symptoms as COVID-19, health experts urge Arizonans to get tested immediately if they or family members feel sick. Some communities provide free COVID-19 testing to those who might not otherwise have easy access. (File photo by Travis Robertson/Cronkite News)

Valleywise may see some of that $60 million directed to its hospitals, which have offered these treatments to high-risk patients since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

White said Valleywise also has taken “every opportunity to offer the vaccines to folks as they are encountering us in the health care system.”

Banner Health also has struggled with staff shortages, but Bessel did not specify numbers. She said Banner continues to bring in nurses and respiratory therapists for training every week.

Other variants

Dr. Joshua LaBaer, the executive director at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, said nearly 100% of cases in Arizona are due to the highly contagious delta variant, and he urged the public to mask up and get vaccinated.

“In the past, with earlier variants of the virus, vaccines reduced the likelihood of getting infected 10 to 1 … with the delta variant, that may be more like 5 to 1,” he said.

So-called breakthrough cases are rare in Arizona, he said, and they’re highly unlikely to require hospitalizations. However, booster COVID-19 shots – third doses given to further protect individuals – are starting to roll out across the country.

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Booster shots for the Pfizer vaccine may become available the week of Sept. 20, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. LaBaer believes they are “likely to be helpful, particularly with this delta variant.”

“The data suggests that if you get that third shot roughly six to eight months after the initial series, it brings the antibody levels up much higher,” he said. “The boosters are likely to be beneficial, but we’ll have to wait until formal studies are done.”

Aside from the delta variant, the Biodesign Institute has identified two cases of the mu strain, a variant identified in dozens of states. However, the CDC categorizes it as a variant of interest rather than a variant of concern.

LaBaer believes that many other potentially more harmful variants will arise as the pandemic continues.

“As long as the number of viruses on planet Earth are high, and as long as lots of people are still getting infected and producing viruses … it is mathematically inevitable that another variant will surface,” he said.

Although vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration have proven to be effective against the delta strain, LaBaer fears that future variants may not be so forgiving.

“We have to prepare ourselves for that. The best way to do that is to get the number of viruses low,” he said.

Olivia McCann(she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Olivia McCann expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. McCann, who has reported for The State Press, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.

Nicole Long Ni-cole Long (she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Nicole Long expects to graduate in December 2021 with a degree in broadcast journalism. Long, who has interned at PHXTV, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.