Local hospitals having a hard time with ICU bed capacity and staffing amid new COVID-19 surge

Officials with two Arizona hospitals say both institutions are anticipating a dark winter ahead amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and it comes down to one thing: staffing for sick patients.

"We may have physical beds that are open, but we need to have the clinical team that’s able to manage those patients if we have them in a bed," said Dr. Michael White, Chief Clinical Officer Valleywise Health.

The ICU capacity is at 90% at Valleywise Medical Center. The facility has three ICU beds left, but six more that will sit empty because they don’t have enough trained nurses.

"We just need to have the right qualified healthcare team members available. Nursing bedside staff to be able to care for those patients at the appropriate level of care," said Dr. White.

Hospitals typically look for trained and specialized travel nurses to provide care, and those are now tough to find.

"We have been able to secure a few travel nurses, we have not had any recently retired as of yet," said Dr. White.

At Banner, it’s the same issue. They’ve been able to get 1,000 staffers from out of state.

"We are recruiting for 900 more," said Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel.

The problem is happening across the country.

"In a normal winter of surge, there might be 14,000 positions posted to secure external labor. Last week, there were 20,000 posted," said Dr. Bessel.

Pulling nurses from other hospital floors to help in the ICU is already happening. Banner believes their hospital system will hit 125% bed capacity on Dec. 4. Then, there is a worst-case scenario: asymptomatic but COVID-positive staff possibly working.

"It would be one of our last types of maneuvers we’d undertake, but it is something we’re aware of that we will do if we need to at the appropriate time, and hope we don’t get to that point," said Dr. Bessel.

Nurse reacts to staffing situation

"I have never seen a virus disease that is so unpredictable and overwhelming," said Laura Enright, who has worked as a nurse for 17 years.

Enright worked her last day at Abrazo a little more than a week ago. She is now becoming a nursing instructor, after working the ICU frontlines not only in Arizona, but also in Detroit.

Enright says the pandemic has taken a physical and emotional toll on healthcare workers.

"They are tired. It is hard work caring for these COVID patients. Being a nurse and a physician and a nurse practitioner and a PA, they're in a real challenging field, but right, now after going through the peak we had in July, people are tired," said Enright.

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COVID-19 symptoms

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

COVID-19 resources

CDC Website for COVID-19


https://espanol.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html (In Spanish/En Español)

AZDHS Website for COVID-19


https://www.azdhs.gov/preparedness/epidemiology-disease-control/infectious-disease-epidemiology/es/covid-19/index.php#novel-coronavirus-home (In Spanish/En Español)