Arizona pandemic czar says all options on table as COVID wave floods hospitals

Dec 10, 2021, 12:01 PM | Updated: 12:18 pm
Medical staff in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Three Rivers Asante Medical Center treat a pat...
Medical staff in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Three Rivers Asante Medical Center treat a patient on Sept. 9, 2021, in Grants Pass, Oregon. (File Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
(File Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Arizona’s pandemic czar said Friday the rising COVID-19 wave has become a “crisis” for the state’s hospitals and could trigger a stoppage of elective surgeries if the situation worsens.

“This is really a crisis now, and every day we’re having the discussions as, ‘How do we surge, when and if this happens, what do we need to curtail?’” Dr. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general serving as the top public health emergency advisor to Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services, told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News.

With COVID-related hospitalizations climbing steadily since the end of October, the amount of unused inpatient and ICU beds statewide shrunk to their lowest levels of the pandemic this week.

With more than one-third of the state’s population still unvaccinated, Carmona said “every option” is on the table for relieving the strain on hospitals.

He said nearly 80% of people hospitalized with COVID haven’t been vaccinated. According to ADHS data for October released earlier this week, Arizonans who aren’t fully vaccinated were nearly four times more likely than those who are to test positive and had a 15 times greater risk of dying from the virus.

“We may have to start thinking about not doing elective surgery,” Carmona said. “We may have to stop thinking about doing anything that’s elective and only treat emergencies.”

Carmona said staffing and equipment shortages are actually more of a concern than bed capacity.

“We have lots of beds, but we have not enough staff and sometimes not enough equipment, like an ECMO for instance,” he said, referring to extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machines, which can keep some patients with heart and lung failure alive.

“The ECMO machine itself is important, but then you need staff that are able to operate that.”

Health care workers are worn down after battling “this invisible threat” for nearly two years, Carmona said.

“Our nursing, our medical professionals our respiratory therapists, all of whom have families to protect as well, they are exhausted,” he said. “So it’s very, very difficult to keep the staffing rates up to provide the care.”

Similar difficulties exist in other states, which limits Arizona’s contingency plan options.

“States around us where we normally which could shift patients back and forth, some of them have already gone into crisis mode, meaning they are not going to take anybody from outside,” Carmona said. “And here in our state were unable to help them by taking patients.”

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Arizona pandemic czar says all options on table as COVID wave floods hospitals