Arizona's healthcare system strained by increasing COVID-19 cases, staffing shortages

Hospital and ICU beds have quickly filled up with more COVID-19 patients over the last few weeks in Arizona as cases have steadily risen, health experts say.

Doctors are warning that the state is getting close to reaching the ICU capacity levels that it saw during the surge in the summer of 2020.

In the last seven days, Arizona has logged more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases every day.

Consequently, the Valley’s largest hospital network, Banner Health, is seeing an influx of patients, both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19.

This all comes as the healthcare system is struggling with a nursing staff shortage.

Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

"Currently we have 435 patients in our ICU. To put that in perspective, last year we had 484 at the peak of the COVID summer surge," said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer.

About 20% of the state’s ICU patients suffer from COVID-19.

State health officials report ICU beds are at 89% capacity. There are less than 200 ICU beds available for new patients as of Aug. 10.

The influx is putting more strain on already burnt-out healthcare workers as hospitals, including Banner, are in the midst of a nursing shortage.

"The magnitude of what we’re likely going to need due to the COVID surge of course is significant and concerning at this time, " Bessel said, adding, "We have 1,057 bedside RN vacancies, and 337 nursing support role vacancies."

Additionally, Banner plans to hire 1,500 travel nurses ahead of the winter flu and cold season. Banner also issued a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all employees by Nov. 1.

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Officials say they recognize that the mandate may push some healthcare workers to quit.

"We have had in the past mandatory influenza vaccination and there were very few team members that ultimately quit over an influenza mandatory vaccination. While we understand the COVID vaccine is new, we are all in this together," Bessel said.

Banner raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour, increased salaries for nurses, and will provide more counseling services to attract new employees.

Meanwhile, health officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated and recommend that children wear masks when they're in school.

Children contracting COVID-19 becoming more common

A major difference with the latest COVID-19 surge is that more children are getting infected with the virus.

Banner Health says it had 71 kids hospitalized with COVID-19 in July, which is double the amount from June.

About 5% of all COVID-19 patients in the hospital system are pediatric patients. Phoenix Children's Hospital is also seeing a rise in positive COVID-19 cases.

Pediatrician with Phoenix Children's Hospital, Dr. Gary Kirkilas, says in mid-July, they saw virus cases rising.

He says the amount of symptomatic children hasn't changed, but the amount of children getting the virus is going up.

"Kids are going back into school, people are getting tired of social distancing and masking so it makes sense that as kids go back to school, people are congregating together. Most viral infections that are contagious and respiratory will increase and this is something we will see quite a bit," Kirkilas explained.

He couldn't give specifics on how many of their hospitalized patients have the virus.

The mobile testing unit with Vincere Cancer Center has seen an uptick in people getting tested, says Dr. Vershalee Shukla.

"April, May, June, it's been fairly slow and in the last two weeks. We picked up from doing 50 per day to yesterday we tested over 300 people," Shukla said.

Many of the people coming in to be tested are symptomatic and they're testing more children than ever before, Shukla said.

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Because of this, they've made a few changes.

"We used to not test under the age of 6, but we've changed that policy now and we're trying to accommodate all kids as much as possible. We require parent supervision and we're requiring the parent to do the nasal swab and be there the whole time," Shukla said.

Click here for more information on the Vincere Cancer Center mobile unit.

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