As COVID-19 cases rise, health leaders continue pleas for Arizonans to get vaccinated

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Tuesday, November 23, 2021 - 5:19pm
Updated: Wednesday, November 24, 2021 - 7:43am

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Dr. Richard Carmona
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Dr. Richard Carmona, special adviser to Gov. Ducey on public health emergency preparedness, speaks at a press conference on Nov. 23, 2021.

Leaders from nine Arizona hospital systems appeared in a rare joint press conference Tuesday alongside representatives from the Arizona Department of Health Services to discuss the state's worsening COVID-19 outbreak. The health care leaders urged Arizonans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. They also encouraged vaccines for children and booster shots for previously vaccinated adults. But the state health department stopped short of introducing any new initiatives to promote vaccination or to mitigate the spread of the virus in Arizona.

"Cases are rising again, even before Thanksgiving get-togethers," said Dr. Richard Carmona, special adviser to Gov. Ducey on public health emergency preparedness. "[We are] asking Arizonans to help us in this battle against an invisible enemy."

Arizona's ICU beds are at 94% capacity. Emergency department beds, inpatient beds and ICU beds in the state are all more full now than they were heading into last year's holiday season. Modelers project cases will increase exponentially in Arizona in the coming weeks. Hospital leaders said they expect facilities to become even more overwhelmed.

"We are having problems down here," Dr. Edward Miller said of his 13-bed Bisbee facility, Copper Queen Community Hospital.

Miller said his small hospital this week entered crisis standards of care and was forced to shut down its operating room so it could reassign nursing staff to care for patients in other units. He said he worried about the consequences of an overburdened health care system.

“For example, last Friday our gastroenterologist told me that she found two advanced colon cancers because their colonoscopies had been delayed for months. And that’s what we canceled today, were 17 colonoscopies,” Miller said.

It's not just small, rural hospitals that are feeling the pressure of the pandemic. Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for the state’s largest hospital network, Banner Health, said unvaccinated COVID-19 patients continue to have an outsized impact on her hospitals' operations.

“50% of our patients in our ICUs or on ventilators today at Banner Health are COVID-positive," Bessel said. "If we didn’t have those patients, we would have more than enough room for all the other patients that we’re talking about that need us today."

Carmona said the state health department has been holding calls with hospital leaders twice a week to consider ways to address the strain on the system. He said the state has provided funding to recruit nursing staff. Carmona called on Arizonans to get vaccinated, but said it was beyond his powers to further incentivize the shots.

"We don't have the authority to order anybody to do anything," Carmona said.

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