Hospitals Continue To Threaten Staff Firings Despite Impact On Patient Care

September 20, 2021

By Terri Jo Neff |

If COVID-19 cases are trending down in 14 of Arizona’s 15 counties, as one public health doctor says, then why are some many hospitals in the state saying they don’t have room treat patients?

According to Dr. Joe K. Gerald, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health, all but one county in Arizona reported lower numbers last week. The outlier was Greenlee County, which is “experiencing worsening outbreaks” and is nearing its all-time pandemic high infection rate, Gerald wrote for the Arizona Public Health Association.

But what cannot be reflect a positive COVID-19 test result (referred to as a case even if asymptomatic) or vaccination rates is what percent of people actually end up in the hospital.

According to Gerald, 2,050 of Arizona’s 8,747 general ward beds (23 percent) were assigned to COVID-19 patients as of Sept. 15, with another 695 beds available statewide for COVID-19 use. At the same time, 565 of Arizona’s 1,743 ICU beds (32 percent) were occupied by COVID-19 patients, with only 143 additional ICU beds available across the state for COVID-19 patients.

But even if infection rates continue to fall in upcoming weeks, Gerald believes COVID-19 related hospitalization occupancy by a percent of available beds will remain high “for several more weeks.” He also notes excess capacity is nearly as low now as it was at the peak of the winter 2020 / 2021 surge when 577 COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospitals statewide.

The problem is that simply having an open bed in a room is not what qualifies as an available bed. The statistic means not only the bed, but also the appropriate equipment and staffing available to treat a COVID-19 patient.

A hospital administrator in southern Arizona told AZ Free News there have already been issues at smaller hospitals in ensuring available beds due to delays with replacing equipment. Conditions worsened when the Delta Variant uptick began in Arizona in July.

But the main issue, the administrator said, is that Arizona’s larger hospital chains,  including Banner, HonorHealth, and Mayo Clinic, are losing experienced medical staff due to mandated proof of vaccination from all staff regardless of position.

Those hospitals -mostly in Maricopa and Pima counties- often accept patients from smaller counties, whether it be COVID-19 patients or trauma patients. However, as many doctors and patients are learning, those options are drying up across the state.

Thousands of health professionals across Arizona are pushing back on the requirement, with many leaving voluntarily instead of waiting to be fired. The result is staffing shortages which in turn impacts the number of available beds not only to treat COVID-19 patients but also those in need of other emergency treatment and even non-emergency procedures.

Gerald, in his article for Arizona Public Health Association, noted that with hospitalizations already at above seasonal levels, hospital administrators need to be prepared for COVID-19 related occupancy to exceed 20 percent of all general ward beds and 25 percent of ICU beds in the near future..

He also noted that Arizona’s fatality rate due to COVID-19 has been staying below 300 a week since February 2021 after hitting an all-time weekly high of nearly 1,100 deaths the month before. That compares to the worse week last year when roughly 600 deaths were recorded as COVID-19 related during one week in mid-July 2020.

“It now appears unlikely that Arizona will reach 300 deaths per week. Instead, the peak should occur at 200 deaths or a bit more per week,” Gerald wrote.

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