Arizona health officials push for new COVID-19 restrictions while hospitals brace for spike in cases

The first cases from Thanksgiving are showing up, so hospitals are bracing for a spike in the next week or two -- and scrambling to find enough staff to handle it. They're also asking Arizonans to hunker down for a couple more months.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines in the pipeline, but there will be many dark days before the pandemic is in the rear view mirror.

"So we're really concerned.. mid-December is going to see a huge caseload of hospitalizations and ICU bed patients that came from a Thanksgiving exposure," said Dr. Andrew Carroll.

Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

It looks like the first vaccine will arrive in Arizona in mid-December and it will be given to at-risk groups first, such as healthcare workers and people in nursing homes. Then the general public should start rolling up their sleeves come February.

"Hopefully will have Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra Zeneca online by that time. So probably looking at maybe the tail end of February into mid-March to see much more widespread distribution of the vaccine," said Carroll.

But first, Arizona has to make it through the next few months. Several hospital officials, doctors, and nurses are urging stronger restrictions until a vaccine arrives -- things like a curfew.

MAP: Arizona Coronavirus cases by zip code

"It would be helpful for us within Phoenix.. within Maricopa County to continue to put these things in place to decrease the spread. A curfew would be a good step for us to help mitigate the spread," said Valleywise Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael White. "We do not want to ever get to the point where we have to implement the crisis standards of care.. we may see vaccination in Arizona that week following the Dec. 10 meeting plans continue to be in place around how that vaccine will be allocated."

We still don't know how many doses are allocated for Arizona. The vaccines come with two booster shots, 28 days apart. The reported side effects thus far include a sore arm and mild flu-like symptoms, which doctors say is a good thing: showing your immune system is at work.

Grim forecast for Arizona hospitals

Top hospital officials across Arizona urged the state Wednesday to take more action to stop the spread of COVID-19, making a bleak projection that the health care system could go beyond capacity later this month.

“All of the comments and statistics I’m sharing with you today paint a very grim picture that if the surge, which is currently in exponential growth, continues at its current pace, that this will become a very dire situation,” Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said during a media briefing.

Bessel was among leaders of eight major hospital systems who signed a letter Tuesday urging Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director, to establish tougher preventive measures. Some of the requests include a ban on indoor dining and group athletic events, curfews and limiting gatherings to no more than 25 people.

Hospitalizations related to the coronavirus statewide reached 2,699 as of Tuesday, including 642 patients in intensive care unit beds. Hospitalizations peaked around 3,500 during a summer surge.

According to the state Department of Health Service’s coronavirus dashboard, 10% of all hospital acute-care beds and 10% of ICU beds remained available.

Health experts have said holiday travel and gatherings are expected to produce additional new cases and related hospitalizations over the next few weeks.

Ducey responds

Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledged “the numbers in Arizona are heading in the wrong direction,” but he declined to order a statewide mask mandate, curfew or business lockdown during a news conference on Dec. 2.

“I don’t think the right answer is to throw hundreds of thousands of Arizonans out of work right before the holidays,” Ducey said.

Better enforcement of existing restrictions on restaurants, bars and gyms, along with local mask mandates and good hygiene, are sufficient, he said. Businesses that skirt safety protocols will face closure after a second offense, he said.

Ducey did announce Wednesday that he is devoting another $60 million to bring nurses from other states and $1 million for restaurants to buy furniture, heaters and other equipment to facilitate outdoor dining. He said he’ll allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating into public rights of way.

The governor also ordered more stringent protocols for outdoor events with more than 50 people, prohibiting local governments from approving large events unless organizers promise to follow recommendations from state and federal public health authorities.

The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are expected to arrive in Arizona in the coming weeks, though it will take months to get enough doses to inoculate everyone in the state. Ducey said he wants teachers to be prioritized to encourage schools, many of which are using remote instruction, to return to using classroom.

“We want our schools open and our teachers protected,” he said.

The vaccine will be free for everyone in Arizona, including people without insurance and those living in the country illegally.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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In order to protect yourself from a possible infection, the CDC recommends: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Monitor your health daily

Continuing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic:

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Prepping for COVID-19 vaccines means making sure freezers are available

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