Rural Arizona hospitals seek federal help for COVID staffing

Arizona is committing millions of dollars and asking the federal government for extra help as hospitals face a growing strain from rising COVID-19 caseloads and warn they are nearing their limits.

Gov. Doug Ducey earmarked another $35 million aimed at helping hospitals staff their existing beds and discharge patients more quickly. His administration also asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for 133 people to bolster staffing at seven rural hospitals.

"These things come in waves. It seems like this wave is upon us and the state is going to be a partner with the system," Ducey told reporters following an appearance in Tempe on Thursday.

The Republican governor, who has encouraged vaccines but resisted mandates for shots or masking, showed no sign he’s rethinking the approach.

"I’m confident our policies will meet this moment and will provide hospitals with the resources so they can care for the sick," Ducey said.

Arizona typically sees its highest hospital demand in the winter as seasonal viruses such as the flu take root and the state’s population swells with winter visitors, many of whom are older with high medical needs.

Arizona’s larger hospital chains have already sounded the alarm this week about being overwhelmed. Leaders of Phoenix-based Banner Health and Valleywise Health say the volume of patients is at its highest since the pandemic started. The rise in hospitalizations is due to COVID-19 as well as people who delayed treatment for other issues needing crucial care.

Hospital executives warn that an overburdened health care system affects not just COVID-19 patients but anyone needing hospital care.

Of the $35.2 million Ducey committed to hospitals this week, $28 million will pay for extending staffing contracts due to expire before the end of the year, said Christina Corieri, a senior adviser to Ducey.

The governor also committed $6 million to bolster staffing at long-term care and rehab facilities so hospitals can more quickly discharge patients who don’t need hospital-level care but aren’t well enough to go home. Dialysis clinics will also get $1.2 million.

Meanwhile Thursday, health officials said the first COVID-19 case in Pima County involving the omicron variant has been confirmed.

The person initially tested positive in Tucson in early December. Genetic sequencing of the sample indicated the omicron variant, which was verified in the past 24 hours by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

"We knew it was a matter of when, and not if, omicron would be in Pima County," said Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen.

The variant previously has been confirmed in cases in Maricopa and Yavapai counties.

The state Department of Health Services is seeking dozens of health care workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after receiving inquiries for additional staffing from seven hospitals earlier this month.

The request form submitted to FEMA on Dec. 4 shows hospitals in Kingman, Bullhead City, Yuma, Douglas, Bisbee, Sierra Vista and Willcox are in need of nurses for COVID-19 care and emergency department support.

The request is still under federal review, Steve Elliott, a department spokesman, said in an email. Meanwhile, the state is continuing its own recruiting efforts.

A spokeswoman for FEMA was not able to immediately comment when reached Thursday.

Hospitalizations statewide were at 2,683 as of Wednesday, according to Arizona’s coronavirus dashboard.

It reported 2,911 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 20 additional deaths. The state has now seen 1,326,908 cases and 23,344 deaths since the pandemic started.

Continued Coverage

Tune in to FOX 10 Phoenix for the latest news:

For the latest local news, download the FOX 10 News app.