Latest surge in COVID-19 cases stressing Arizona health care system

Two years after COVID-19 first appeared in Arizona, infections are surging with the appearance of the highly infectious omicron variant. The surge threatens to further stress an already beleaguered health care system. This 2020 photo shows a health care worker in Fort Belvoir, Va., during the first surge of the virus. (Photo by Reese Brown/U.S. Army, Fort Belvoir)

WASHINGTON – Arizona reported 18,783 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, the latest in a surge of infections that experts say is stressing a state health care system that is “not well suited” to take on more cases.

The state has been averaging almost 12,000 new cases a day since Jan. 1, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services, as the new, more-contagious omicron variant has raced through the state. COVID-19 deaths in the state are averaging 64 a day this month, and totaled just under 25,000 Wednesday.

The rate of infection is “going up, and it’s going up fast,” stretching health care workers to their limit, said Dr. Josh LaBaer.

“We have fewer health care workers than we used to,” said LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute. “There are empty beds but there is no one to staff the beds.”

Officials at Valleywise Health said the health care system has seen the number of COVID-positive patients in its emergency departments nearly double in the last month.

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“(In) the last week we had higher numbers in our emergency department in Maryvale than we’ve seen since we opened that emergency department back in 2019,” said Dr. Michael White, Valleywise chief clinical officer, during a press briefing Wednesday.

AZDHS reported Wednesday that one-third of intensive care unit beds in the state were occupied by COVID-19 patients, who were filling 37% of all hospital beds in the state.

White said the system was running out of workers to deliver monoclonal antibody treatments to COVID-positive patients who are most at risk of developing severe cases of the disease, leading the system to request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In order to qualify for FEMA assistance, facilities must be able to prove that other forms of local and state resources have been used to mitigate staffing shortages. This includes telemedicine and recalling retired medical professionals to the field, among other options.

Robert Barker, the public relations specialist for FEMA Region 9, said the agency has not yet seen the Valleywise request, which was submitted earlier this week. He said the agency is currently funding eight other missions in Arizona, including programs focused on vaccination and monoclonal antibody treatment.

In an open letter to Arizona health care and elected officials last month, a group of health care workers called on the state to reinstate pandemic restrictions to combat the omicron surge, including requirements for masking, vaccinating and social distancing.

“Our healthcare workforce is suffering from moral injury and burnout from the sustained onslaught that wave after wave of COVID has had on us, our families, and our communities,” the letter read.

LaBaer said the surge in cases threatens all patients in the state.

“The concern would be that people that need to get into the hospital are not going to get into the hospital,” he said.

One way to relieve the stress on hospitals is to limit emergency-room trips to only the most-needed instances, said Ann-Marie Alameddin, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

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“If you do not require emergency care, consider discussing your symptoms with your primary care provider, having a telemedicine visit or going to urgent care to help you avoid long waits in the emergency room,” Alameddin said.

AZDHS reported the state’s first case of the omicron variant last month. White said it is now the dominant strain in the state. White said he expects to see a peak in positive cases in two weeks, with a peak in hospitalizations following a week or two after.

“Be aware that this virus is markedly circulating within the community. It is the more contagious variant,” he said.

While the vast majority of COVID-positive patients at Valleywise are unvaccinated, White said about 10% of the highly contagious omicron cases the system has seen have been among vaccinated patients. But he – like all the other health experts who spoke Wednesday – stressed the need for those who are unvaccinated to consider receiving a vaccine.

“If you have not been vaccinated or boosted against COVID-19 disease, consider getting these taken care of as soon as possible,” White said. “We know that this is the therapy that prevents people from becoming severely ill or requiring hospitalization for COVID-19 disease.”

LaBaer cautioned people who think they can get around vaccination by intentionally getting infected against running that risk. He urged people to get vaccinated to keep themselves, and others, safe and healthy.

“Health is not something you want to gamble with,” LaBaer said.

Alexia Stanbridge uh-LEK-see-uh STAN-bridge (she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Alexia Stanbridge expects to graduate in May 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Stanbridge, who has interned with and worked for Arizona Horizon, Break It Down and Black in Arizona on Arizona PBS, is working in the Phoenix news bureau.

Reagan Priest Ray-gan Priest (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Reagan Priest expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Priest has also worked at The Copper Courier, The State Press, Cronkite News D.C., The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.