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Experts Worry About Arizona Health Care System As State's Hospitals Near Capacity


Arizona hospitals are filling up with coronavirus patients, and many experts are concerned the health care system there could soon buckle under the pressure. NPR's Will Stone reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Arizona's hospitals are frantically bringing in hundreds of nurses from outside the state for backup. Dr. Marjorie Bessel is the chief clinical officer for Banner Health, the state's largest hospital system.

MARJORIE BESSEL: The current trend, if it doesn't peak out here sometime soon in the next week or so, could put us in a situation where we've exceeded our capacity.

STONE: Arizona hospitals have now started using the state's crisis standards of care plan, which allows them to ration care during an emergency. Major hospital systems say they aren't doing that yet. Dr. Keith Frey oversees Dignity Health hospitals in Arizona.

KEITH FREY: We, like everybody else, are in that contingency zone. And we're ready to go to the crisis zone, which is the next level, if and when we get there.

STONE: Predicting when hospitals might actually hit capacity is difficult, says Dr. Joshua LaBaer. That's because they can add surge beds, discharge patients or divert them elsewhere. LaBaer does coronavirus modeling at Arizona State University.

JOSHUA LABAER: There's always going to be some beds available somewhere, but it doesn't mean that there will be beds available at the hospital that you - that people want to go to.

STONE: The nearest available bed might be hundreds of miles away, and LaBaer says having enough beds statewide does not guarantee hospitals have adequate staffing. That can affect patient care. He says Arizona's daily case counts may be leveling off slightly but are still not sustainable.

LABAER: That is a car that, even though it's going at a constant speed, is going at 95 miles an hour. It's not a safe speed to be going.

STONE: He says ASU's modeling shows at this rate, if nothing changes, beds could be depleted by mid-July. What's alarming is more than a quarter of coronavirus tests are coming back positive, and it's taking four days to more than a week for many to get test results. Phoenix area emergency medicine doctor Quinn Snyder is even seeing people show up at the ER pleading for tests, and sick patients are pouring in.

QUINN SNYDER: We're overflowing. We don't have space for everybody. This is an unparalleled tragedy. I cannot believe - I'm at a loss for words. I'm so sad for what's going on here.

STONE: Snyder's watched this crisis build over the summer and now crash down. The Phoenix metro area has more total cases than almost any other county in the U.S. Still, restaurants remain open. Masks are required in some cities but not statewide.

SNYDER: We have people out and about everywhere, and we're hoping that this works. We're just keeping our fingers crossed. It's an experiment I personally never would have done, and it's a terrible mess.

STONE: Arizona's Republican Gov. Doug Ducey is telling people to stay home, wear masks. He shut down bars and gyms and limited restaurant capacity to 50%. But yesterday Ducey refrained from enacting another shutdown.


DOUG DUCEY: There are other things that we can do. This is what we're doing now. I've said along the way, I'm going to make the best decision for Arizona in real time.

STONE: But experts like Dr. Shad Marvasti at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix say Arizona's window of opportunity may be closing.

SHAD MARVASTI: It could get much worse than this. Imagine if New York or Italy at the height didn't shut down and they just decided to ride it. How many more people would die either from COVID-19 or other health emergencies because they couldn't get care?

STONE: And he says no one should assume that Arizona's relatively low COVID-19 death rate, now over 2,000, won't skyrocket. Will Stone, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone
[Copyright 2024 NPR]