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Top Banner doc pushes for vaccines, masks as Az hospitals face 'exponential' COVID increase

97% of hospitalizations at Banner among unvaccinated; 1 out of 20 cases involve children

The chief of Arizona's largest hospital network pressed her case for vaccinations and masks, warning Tuesday that hospitals have endured an "exponential" increase in COVID-19 since July 1, and that the use of ventilators has tripled.

During a press conference Tuesday, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said that since July 1, COVID-19 hospitalizations increased 95 percent. Nearly all patients who were hospitalized were unvaccinated, Bessel said, and Banner hospitals were seeing a shift in the age of patients.

"Hospitalizations, ICU admissions and ventilator usage are in the 20- to 60-year age group, which is different from prior surges when most patients were over 60 years of age," she said. Additionally, around 5 percent of new hospitalizations were children, who were suffering from COVID-19, and a common respiratory virus that usually strikes in the winter.

Based in Arizona, Banner Health manages 30 acute-care hospitals, including hospitals in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, and Wyoming. This includes Banner University Medical Center, and Banner University Medical South, as well as the Cancer Center and the Diamond Children's Medical Center in Tucson.

The number of kids suffering from COVID-19 at Banner hospitals doubled in July with 71 admissions, said David Lozano, a spokesman for Banner Health. He said that the number of kids who are sent to the ICU is very low, and most pediatric COVID patients are admitted to progressive care units instead.

On July 20, Banner Health announced that it would require all of its 52,000 employees to be vaccinated by November 1.

"The Delta variant is fueling the spread of this virus in the United States," Bessel said. "It is highly transmissible and has even caused breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. Now, this does not mean the vaccine is not working. The COVID vaccines are still highly effective in preventing serious illness and death."

"This is demonstrated by the low rate of hospitalizations and deaths of vaccinated individuals across the country," she said, adding that roughly 97 percent of hospitalizations and 99 percent of deaths are "individuals who are unvaccinated."

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We are not yet, at this time, close to the peak both in July and in January—the two largest, previous surges that we saw," she said.  

"However, the slope of what we're starting to experience looks very, very similar to the exponential growth that we experienced during those two very large surges," Bessel said.

"We have a new tool available to us to make sure that we do not get to that level of surge and it is called vaccine. Please get vaccinated as soon as possible if you are not already vaccinated against COVID-19," she said.

Bessel also recommended people wear masks, noting that the CDC confirmed last week that the "viral load" for those who have the Delta variant of COVID-19 is "much higher than other strains, making it more likely for infected individuals to spread the virus to others."

"That is why the CDC came out with its recommendation to resume masking in indoor settings regardless of your vaccination status," she said. "By doing this you are protecting yourself from infection as well as those around you from contracting the virus. This recommendation applies to everyone 2 years of age and up." 

"Please pull your masks out of retirement for the time being," she said. "I know that we were all thrilled to hear a few months ago that they were no longer necessary, but as you have witnessed throughout the pandemic, COVID is a resilient virus, and newer mutations of the virus pose a serious threat due to low vaccination rates across the country."

She said she understood that it was "difficult" and "disappointing" that masks were needed again, but that masking up indoors gives an additional layer of protection for people, including those who are not able to get vaccinated. "I do think that looking at the science of what has unfolded throughout the pandemic, that it is likely that the virus is going to stay with us for a very long period of time, which means we will continue to have people who get ill from this," she said.

However, she said that by getting vaccinated and wearing masks people could help save people from a "preventable illness."

Meanwhile, Banner hospitals will begin restricting visitors, limiting the number of visitors to facilities in Maricopa, Gil and Pinal counties to just one person because of increased transmission rates, while people in hospitals in Coconino and Pima will continue to have as many as two visitors. However, Bessel warned that as COVID cases "continue to increase across the state we may also need to implement tighter visitor restrictions in those counties as well."

The University of Arizona's Dr. Joe Gerald began issuing new reports on COVID-19 cases in Arizona after a short hiatus, writing that COVID-19 infection rates are "now above the threshold marking high levels of community transmission" following the week of July 25.

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"Unfortunately, the potential size and/or duration of this outbreak remains uncertain," he wrote. With 141 cases per 100,000 people, Arizona ranks 17th among the 50 states. However, Arizona's rate is two to three times lower than the leaders, including Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Louisiana has 539 cases per 100,000 people, while Florida's rate is around 463 cases per 100,000 people per week, Gerald wrote.

"Fortunately, these rates remain below the peaks seen in these states during the January 2021 outbreak," he said.

On Tuesday, the CDC issued a new order, limiting evictions based on increased transmission of COVID-19.

"The emergence of the Delta variant has led to a rapid acceleration of community transmission in the United States, putting more Americans at increased risk, especially if they are unvaccinated," she wrote. "his moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads. It is imperative that public health authorities act quickly to mitigate such an increase of evictions, which could increase the likelihood of new spikes in SARS-CoV-2 transmission.  Such mass evictions and the attendant public health consequences would be very difficult to reverse."

Additionally, Gerald's report noted Arizona's vaccination rate, which has begun to plateau over the summer. At the peak of the state's vaccination push, state and county officials administered more than 78,000 doses at the end of March, but on Monday, around 6,300 doses were given out.

Overall, around 53.3 percent of Arizona's eligible population—which includes anyone 12 and older—is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to figures from the CDC. Among the southwestern states, Arizona is slightly ahead of Nevada, but far behind California, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

Meanwhile, Maine has managed to inoculate nearly 73 percent of those 12 and older, the best rate in the nation.

Nationwide, 165.1 million people have been fully vaccinated, or roughly 49.7 percent of the total population, according to the CDC.  Among those eligible for the vaccine, the rate is around 58 percent, rising to 80 percent among those 65 and older.

"For a bit of perspective, only 43 percent of adults were vaccinated against influenza in the 2019-2020 season so we are doing better than usual, but still not good enough," Gerald wrote. "On a positive note, about 70 thousand vaccine doses were administered last week which is about 10 thousand more than the prior week. As slow and frustrating as our vaccination efforts may seem, it is important we continue the hard work of vaccine outreach."

"Resumption of in-person instruction (K-12 and universities) in the face of high community transmission, low vaccination rates, prohibition of universal masking, lack of surveillance testing, and minimal physical distancing will undoubtedly lead to frequent school-related outbreaks and accelerating community transmission," Gerald wrote. "For this reason, August is likely to be a difficult month."

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1 comment on this story

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21 comments
Aug 4, 2021, 6:47 am
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Tripling use of vents for hospitalized patients is not exponential growth. Moreover.  Can we stop using cases?  How many deaths have we seen?  Not many. 

If they had two people on covid vents last week and now have 6 hats a tripling. But still not very concerning.  All we have are conclusions and percents and no real data.  No numbers.  Once again it’s designed to worry you with vague statements that are nothing but conclusions.

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courtesy Banner Health

Dr. Marjorie Bessel during an Aug. 3 press conference.