Banner Health warns Arizona hospitals stretched to limit

Phoenix-based Banner Health is at its most overwhelmed since the pandemic began, leading the company’s officials to issue a warning Tuesday that its hospital system may have to eventually choose who can receive care.

Some of Banner’s hospitals in one of Arizona’s largest health care systems are operating above 100% capacity, said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the company’s chief clinical officer.

COVID-19 hospitalizations make up one-third of Banner’s hospital patients, but there is also an extremely high volume of patients who delayed preventative care or are in the late stages of an illness, she said.

The company has 18 hospitals in Arizona. As of Tuesday, 10 of them were running above 100% of their ICU staffed bed capacity. Five of them were operating 100% above staffed in-patient bed capacity, according to spokesman Corey Schubert.

"We are more stretched now than we have been since the start of the pandemic," Bessel told reporters. "ICUs are where we are experiencing the most significant strain on our resources."

Banner has had to postpone medical procedures, new patient visits and non-urgent appointments because of the intensive care unit needs.

Hospital professionals are prioritizing medically necessary surgeries like mastectomies and gall bladder removals. The hospital system — with assistance from over 2,600 travel nurses who travel around the country filling staffing needs — is trying to counter a hemorrhaging of Banner staff nurses who retired, left the field or took non-bedside jobs .

Banner’s modeling predicts that its number of Arizona hospital bed occupancies will escalate and peak in mid-January, Bessel added.

Nearly 90% of Banner patients undergoing treatment for COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Some days, the percentage of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients in intensive care has been 100%. Bessel reiterated that vaccinations were the key to reducing the burden on health care workers.

"My top ask of the community at this time is for all who are eligible to get vaccinated and your booster if you have not yet done so," Bessel said. "This is the best way to prevent serious COVID illness that requires hospital-level care."

Banner’s situation echoes other hospitals in the region. Dr. Michael White, of Phoenix-based Valleywise Health, said staff are reporting the same number of COVID-19 infected patients as a year ago. White had hoped that vaccinations would have translated into fewer hospitalizations.

Arizona reports 2,168 new COVID cases, 203 deaths

Arizona reported fewer than 3,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases for a second day after two weeks of higher numbers.

The state coronavirus dashboard on Dec. 14 reported 2,168 additional cases as well as 203 deaths from the virus. Health officials, however, added that most of the fatalities were reported after inspection of death certificates going back several weeks.

Since the pandemic started, the state has seen 1,320,748 cases and 23,243 deaths in all.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 inched up somewhat to 2,764 patients as of Monday. The number of hospitalized remain far below the pandemic peak of 5,082 last January. Still, hospital staffs have been stretched thin between COVID-19 patients and patients who need treatment for other illnesses or surgeries.

Tuesday marks one year since COVID-19 vaccines first arrived in Arizona, according to the Department of Health Services. So far, more than 4.5 million people — or 63.8% of the population — in the state have received at least one dose of a vaccine. Over 3.9 million have been fully vaccinated. Of the state’s vaccine-eligible population, 67.8% have received at least one dose.

Public health officials say unvaccinated people are 15.2 times more likely to die than those who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

MORE: Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers


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

Symptoms for coronavirus COVID-19 include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. These, of course, are similar to the common cold and flu. 

Expect a common cold to start out with a sore or scratchy throat, cough, runny and/or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms are more intense and usually come on suddenly, and can include a high fever. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear more slowly. They usually include fever, a dry cough and noticeable shortness of breath, according to the World Health Organization. A minority of cases develop pneumonia, and the disease is especially worrisome for the elderly and those with other medical problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.

RELATED: Is it the flu, a cold or COVID-19? Different viruses present similar symptoms

To protect yourself, wash your hands well and often, keep them away from your face, and avoid crowds and standing close to people.

And if you do find yourself showing any of these flu or coronavirus symptoms - don't go straight to your doctor's office. That just risks making more people sick, officials urge. Call ahead, and ask if you need to be seen and where.

More COVID-19 in Arizona news

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