Valleywise Health sees ‘modest decline’ in COVID-19 cases but fears nursing shortage will worsen

As of Wednesday, nearly 3.7 million Arizonans had received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Rising rates could be damping new infections, health officials say. (File photo by Travis Robertson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – As Arizonans continue to get vaccinated, the number of COVID-19 cases in one major health system has tapered off. However, Valleywise Health continues to suffer a severe nursing shortage, and officials fear the coming deadline for employees to be vaccinated may make it worse.

Valleywise Health, Maricopa County’s health system, held a news conference Wednesday to provide updates on COVID-19 trends.

Valleywise reported 26 cases this week across the organization, with 20 at the medical health center and six at behavioral health facilities. This is a modest decrease from the numbers reported in previous weeks, which had counts in the 30s and 40s, according to Dr. Michael White, chief clinical officer at Valleywise Health.

Of these COVID-19 patients, about half are being treated in the ICU, he said.

In addition, some of these patients suffer “post-acute COVID syndrome,” in which patients endure new, ongoing or recurring symptoms four or more weeks after infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

White said these patients “require a tremendous amount of resources and a very long length of stay within our hospitals. Even though we are caring for 20 patients that are acutely positive, I have another eight patients that have recovered from the disease but still require hospital care.”

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Valleywise is one of many health care groups requiring all employees to be vaccinated. As Valleywise approaches its Nov. 1 deadline for proof of vaccination, White estimates that the system will lose nurses as a result. Across the country, health care workers are being fired or resigning for refusing to get vaccinated, adding to what is already a crisis in hospital worker shortages during the pandemic, which is nearing its second year.

“I anticipate that we will have some attrition of folks that have made the choice not to receive the vaccine,” White said. “We’re trying everything in our power to make that number as small as possible.”

Valleywise Health last month reported 400 open positions, including 150 bedside nurse positions.

To prevent further losses, Valleywise will continue its recruitment efforts, and it has processes in place for those who can’t take the vaccine for medical or religious reasons to continue in the workforce.

The Arizona Nurses Association could not be reached for comment.

As of Wednesday, nearly 3.7 million Arizonans had received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

As winter approaches, White said, people can prevent overwhelming hospitals by getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza. With more Arizonans staying outdoors as the weather cools, he said, that might also curb the spread of the coronaviruses that cause both diseases.

“We’re not going to be indoors as much as the weather is improving here in the state of Arizona,” White said. “I’m hopeful with the number of folks that we’ve had vaccinated … we will continue to see this number not rise higher than the peaks we saw last winter.”

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.