Arizona Health Department Urges Hospitals To 'Fully Activate' Emergency Plans

By Ben Giles
Published: Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 8:08am
Updated: Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 8:11am

Dr. Cara Christ
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Dr. Cara Christ explains June 4, 2020, why Arizona has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases.

After officials at Arizona’s largest hospital system warned they’re nearing their capacity to treat patients in intensive care, the state’s health director sent a letter urging hospitals to “fully activate” emergency plans during the pandemic.

The letter from Dr. Cara Christ, which also encouraged hospitals to suspend or reduce elective surgeries if needed, was sent one day after Banner Health officials said their ICU beds were almost 100% full.

Banner Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said on Friday that intensive care units in Maricopa County were almost full. And while the hospital has contingency plans to increase the number of ICU beds to 125 percent capacity, Bessel warned that the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalization since Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order expired threatens to max out hospitals.

Officials at the Arizona Department of Health Services said the letter, sent on Saturday, listed guidelines already provided to hospitals in March.

Christ previously sent a letter on March 25 urging hospitals to activate emergency plans, implement triage processes and prepare for a surge in patients.

That surge is happening now — Arizona has experienced record-highs for new positive tests, and exceeded 1,000 deaths on June 5.

The rate of tests coming back positive is also on the rise, as is the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19. Bessel called it an increase in the “sickest of the sick.”

Dr. Marjorie Bessel
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Marjorie Bessel

In light of those concerns, Rigler described the health department’s latest correspondence with hospitals as a reminder of the correspondence in March.

“We issued a follow up letter to that, reminding hospitals about the requirements under the various executive orders, as well as the potential steps that they can take to prepare for surge capacity and the resources that are available to them as well,” she said. “And this letter was really issued based on the fact that we've been hearing anecdotally some concerns in the hospital community as well as the community at large about potential capacity issues in hospitals.”

An order by Ducey in March required hospitals to increase their hospital bed capacity, initially by 25% and then by 50% by the end of April.

Rigler said it’s unclear if all hospitals followed through on that requirement. But she said the state did add 600 ICU beds since April and 2,600 inpatient beds.

If that’s not enough, as Banner Health officials warned, Rigler pointed to the “surge line,” a statewide tracking system of hospital capacity that allows patients at overwhelmed hospitals to be transferred to facilities with available beds.

Rigler said the state has other contingency plans available.

“We do have St. Luke's available as an alternate care site. It's currently a warm site. So it's not staffed to take patients at this time. But it is there and available should we need to spin it up,” Rigler said. “And triggers for that really do include exceedance of capacity at facilities.”

It’d take several weeks to staff St. Luke’s Medical Center, Rigler said, so the state is closely tracking hospital capacity to ensure the facility can be ready if and when it’s needed.

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