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COVID-19 surge: Banner Health using refrigerated trucks to expand morgue capacity

Healthcare officials are now saying the current surge of the coronavirus is starting to look worse than the summer surge.

Hospitals are filling to capacity with a spike in COVID-19 patients and at some locations, the morgues are full.

The situation at hospitals around the state is looking grim. In the past two weeks alone, ore than 500 people in Arizona have died of COVID-19. On Dec. 18, Banner Health officials announced they have brought in refrigerated trucks because their hospital morgue is full, and it needs to increase capacity for more bodies.

"This week, here in Arizona, we've also reached the highest number of COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic, exceeding the prior surge this summer," said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer.

Coronavirus in Arizona: Latest case numbers

Sadly, not all COVID-19 patients in this surge are going home from the hospital. Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix is now storing bodies in refrigerated trucks.

"These deaths have caused us to exceed our morgue capacity at some hospitals, which has resulted in the use of refrigerated trucks to expand our morgue capacity," explained Bessel.

She says hospitalizations continue to increase exponentially. Currently 49% of all hospital patients in the state have COVID-19.

"Think about that for a minute. Nearly half of the patients currently being cared for in Arizona hospitals are there because of a disease that did not even exist last year."

Currently, the transmission rate of the virus in Arizona is one of the worst in the country.

MAP: Arizona Coronavirus cases by zip code

The COVID positivity rate of patients at Banner emergency rooms is at 60%. Ventilator usage in the Banner system has increased 500% since Nov. 1. 

Valleywise Hospital in Phoenix reported on Dec. 18 it has just over four intensive care unit beds available, and six unstaffed ICU beds.

Hospitals are not having to triage patients yet, but continue to find ways to make room for the influx of ICU patients.

"In some ICU rooms, we are placing two patients instead of one, in addition to that, we are using other areas in the hospital as a place for ICU patients to receive care," said Bessel.

Banner officials also announced once the FDA approves emergency use of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, it expects to receive shipments and begin administering them next week.

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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 COVID-19 pandemic:

Arizona researchers: COVID-19 could become 'humanitarian crisis' in the state

Researchers say virus cases in Arizona are doubling about every 14 days now, and things will likely get worse in the coming weeks.

Arizona lawmaker seeks to end Gov. Ducey's COVID-19 emergency declaration

Republican Arizona state senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita wrote, "We can deal with Covid-19 in a thoughtful & meaningful way w/o being under a perpetual state of emergency."