Valley hospitals struggling with ICU capacity amid worsening COVID-19 surge

Hospital officials across the Valley say they’re operating above capacity currently, and are pleading with the public to be vigilant as the number of COVID-19 cases, as well as the COVID-19 mortality rate, continue to rise.

All Arizona hospitals have added beds and staff beyond their normal licensed capacity under an executive order signed earlier this year by Gov. Doug Ducey. To treat more people, they’re putting two people in rooms intended for one, expanding into other areas of their buildings or increasing nurse-to-patient ratios.

Banner Health

 Three Banner Health hospitals are operating above capacity as Arizona confronts a surge in coronavirus cases, the top doctor for the state’s largest hospital chain said Wednesday.

Currently, 58% of all of Banner’s ICU patients suffer from COVID-19, and COVID-19 patients are using 74% of their ventilators.

"Now, we are at 160% of peak winter occupancy. This pressure has forced Banner hospitals to halt or significantly reduce elected surgeries and procedures," said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Chief Clinical Officer for Banner Health.

Surgeries and procedures impacted include medically necessary procedures, such as mastectomies and gall bladder surgeries.

Meanwhile, Banner Health is still using refrigerated trucks to add capacity to their hospital morgues.

"We are experiencing two to three times the normal number of bodies that we store. About 47% of these bodies are COVID patients who did not survive their disease," said Dr. Bessel.

Bessel reiterated her call for government actions to limit the spread of the virus, praising Pima County and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero for implementing nighttime curfews. She questioned Ducey’s springtime order, which prohibits local governments from passing health restrictions that are tougher than his own.

"The question for why the governor has not granted mayors the authority to make mitigation decisions that can be most impactful in curbing the trend has yet to be scientifically answered," Bessel said.

She pleaded with people to avoid social gatherings, wear a mask and maintain social distancing.

"Most of you did not take an oath to save lives," Bessel said. "But today, I’m asking you to join those of us who have so we can collectively save as many lives as possible during this pandemic."

ValleyWise Hospital

"I have 10 ICU beds that are unstaffed this morning, and I have one ICU bed available this morning," said Dr. Michael White, Chi Medical Officer for ValleyWise Hospital.

Dr. White says it appears that more patients are dying from COVID-19 than before.

"Anecdotally, I would say we are seeing a slightly higher increased mortality rate with this second surge than we saw with the first surge," said Dr. White.

Hospital officials say the state won’t see the peak of the current surge until the middle of January, and healthcare experts are all calling on people to shrink their circle, meaning don’t physically interact with people outside of their household, and to wear a mask.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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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 (In Spanish/En Español)

AZDHS Website for COVID-19 (In Spanish/En Español)