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Overwhelmed by Omicron, Az hospitals are short-staffed & closing urgent cares, Banner doc says

COVID-19 spike hits highest numbers of new confirmed daily infections in January

The largest network of hospitals in Arizona is struggling to staff its facilities as the Omicron variant has driven the highest surge in COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic. Banner Health expects case numbers to peak in February but is already “extremely busy” as the virus hits nurses and fills their ICUs.

Arizona has gone through its worst surge yet of new COVID cases during January, with multiple days of more than 25,000 new cases. There were 14,750 new COVID cases and one death reported statewide on Monday by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Pima County reported 1,997 new cases on Monday and no new deaths.

Arizona hospitalization trends for Banner “continue to be of concern as confirmed cases in our state the past three weeks have been at record highs,” Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief clinical officer for Banner, said at a press conference on Monday.

“We are still having increased numbers of COVID in our communities and we do expect that we are close to the peak,” she said. “Omicron has really overwhelmed our communities. It’s become the predominant strain. It’s become the predominant strain in a very, very short period of time.”

Hospital admissions for COVID have been steadily increasing since the beginning of January and now account for a third of Banner’s total state in-patient population. Banner expects the current Omicron-driven surge to peak in mid-February based on their forecasting.

Omicron became the dominant strain in Arizona in late December and has since become “the absolute dominant variant during the month of January,” Bessel said. More than 90 percent of all COVID cases are Omicron, she said, and “there is almost nothing left of the Delta variant or other variants left in the state at this time.”

The hope is that COVID becomes more “subdued,” Bessel said, and that it falls into a more cyclical pattern like other respiratory viruses and the common flu.

“We certainly hope that this will end the pandemic part of what we’re experiencing and push us to the endemic part,” She said about the current Omicron surge. “This virus is not leaving this Earth, and we will need to learn how to live with it.”

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Every county in the state has an infection rate beyond the level that designates an area of “high” transmission by the Centers for Disease Control, which considers “high” to be 100 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.

Every other county in the state has a rate with more than 1,000 new cases — most with more 2,000 —and Pima County has a relatively low transmission rate for the state. Neighboring Santa Cruz County has the highest rate in the state with 3,572 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. Pima County also has a 34 percent positivity rate, as almost a third of everyone who tests for COVID is reporting positive for the virus.

In Pima County, the transmission rate as of Monday was 1,916 new cases per 100,000 people over the week. In Maricopa County, the rate is 2,283 new cases per 100,000 people over the same week.

Several local governing leaders in Pima County have also announced that they’ve tested positive for COVID over the past week, including U.S. Rep Raul Grijalva, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo and Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher.

COVID infecting more nurses, hospital staffers

Staffing is a “top priority” at the hospitals, Bessel said, as the hospital resorts to travel workers and closing urgent care center to meet the need for nurses and other staff in hospitals. Although Banner reports that 91 percent of its workers are vaccinated, many staffers are becoming infected with COVID, leading to staffing shortages, she said.

“Our team members are also members of the community,” she said. “When positivity rates and case counts increase in our communities, our team members are exposed and infected with the virus too.” Banner uses CDC return-to-work guidance for their healthcare workers, Bessel said.

Banner hospitals have relied on travel nurses to increase their hospital staff and make up for shortages throughout the pandemic, especially during the winter, Bessel said. They expect that “a fairly good portion of our staffing” will come from external contracts to bring in travel nurses, she said, at least through the rest of the winter.

Some Banner urgent care facilities have temporarily closed in response to limited staff, but this has mostly happened to Phoenix-area locations. Bessel said anyone seeking urgent care check should online to check for closures. It’s also a good idea to schedule an appointment online, she said, if there are time slots available.

Telehealth options, or receiving medical care online through video, phone or messaging, are also available at Banner urgent cares. “The service is a great option for those who want fast care,” Bessel said.

Banner has “staff that are ill each and every day,” Bessel said, and has contracted healthcare labor and brought in individuals from other parts of the organization to keep hospitals staffed. Hospitals remain “very busy,” she said, including emergency departments.

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Individual hospitals are making decisions each day about whether to make elective surgeries but have had “a limited number of those that have had to be canceled,” she said. If anyone needs emergency medical care, Bessel asked that they still come into Banner emergencies departments to seek care and not be deterred.

Non-emergency medical concerns should be addressed through urgent care sites or through the telehealth option, Bassel said, saying medical care should not be avoided out of concern for how busy hospitals are.

Vaccination and treatments

Vaccination continues to be “your best defense to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death due to COVID,” Bessel said, and “boosters will help maximize protection.” Still, unvaccinated patients have overwhelmed Banner hospitals.

COVID patients at Banner hospitals are 83 percent unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, and 87 percent of COVID patients in ICU beds at Banner are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

Treatments for people test positive for COVID are limited right now, Bessel said, including monoclonal antibodies and oral antivirals. Because of the low supply of the three drug brands that have received emergency approval by the CDC, Bessel urged anyone seeking these treatments to consult with doctors immediately after experiencing COVID symptoms. Not everyone who qualifies for these treatments, she said, will be able to receive them.

Bessel also stressed that masking is “very important right now,” saying “it is still a very important tool to protect yourself and reduce the spread of COVID during these times of very high transmission.”

A high-quality, fitted mask like the N95 and KN95 masks work best, Bessel said, and should always be used in in-door pubic setting or when around large crowds. N95 and KN95 “provide the best protection,” she said.

This COVID surge has a “decreased severity” compared to other COVID surges, Bessel said. ICU occupancy numbers are less than they were during the peak of Jan. 2021, which Bessel said is a direct result of the “decreased severity that we’re experiencing with Omicron.”

However, the total number of patients that Banner hospitals have that are either confirmed or suspected to be COVID positive is at an “extremely high level right now,” Bessel said. Many of those patients need a lesser level of care and don’t as often require intensive care compared during previous COVID surges, including those driven by Delta, she said.

The number of pediatric COVID cases has also remained “relatively low” during the current surge, Bessel said.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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