Phoenix hospitals prep for new COVID-19 surge

Delta variant, unvaccinated communities a concern


Health care workers in and around Phoenix are once again springing into action as an uptick in severe COVID-19 cases — largely caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant — rattles hospitals.

Dr. Michael White, chief clinical officer for Valleywise Health in Phoenix, said in a news briefing on Thursday the health care system has seen an increase in hospitalizations in recent weeks, which places additional stress on health care workers and requires more resources.

White said the spike is “unfortunate” given the success rate of the prevalent COVID-19 vaccines.

“The team rallies but they are tired from this,” Dr. White said of Valleywise staffers. “We do not need to see another large spike in our communities when we have this tool available.”

There are currently 12 patients hospitalized at the Valleywise Health Medical Center with acute symptoms of the virus, the bulk of whom are in the intensive care unit, according to White. That’s in addition to the higher volume of patients seeking medical care and screenings they put off in 2020.

That falls in line with the situation statewide, where 910 patients are currently hospitalized because of the virus, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Of those, 238 are in the ICU — the highest number since March 12.

ADHS reported approximately 1,479 additional cases and seven deaths on Friday. Of those, Maricopa County recorded 1,020 cases and five deaths. It is the highest daily case count in more than a week.

With just more than 51% of the state’s population fully vaccinated, doctors like White are pleading with people to take advantage of the vaccine, which has shown to present little-to-no side effects.

White said Valleywise’s 4,800 employees know the drill now after two previous surges, one in July and one last winter, and masks continue to be required in all clinical and administrative areas of its facilities.

But vaccinating more of the community will be key to ensuring the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed by a resurgence of the virus.

“Those that have received the vaccine, we have seen very little of those patients at Valleywise,” he said.

Valleywise is considering mandating the vaccine as a condition of employment, much like Phoenix-based Banner Health has done in recent days.

Banner announced it will require all its employees across multiple states to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before Nov. 1.

While Banner Health spokesperson David Lozano declined to provide COVID-19 hospitalization data, he said, “we have built a solid preparation plan having been through two prior surges, and volume is manageable at this time.”

Lozano, like White, encouraged vaccinations and the continued use of masks, particularly for those who are unvaccinated. National data shows that 97% of COVID hospitalizations and 99% of COVID deaths are in the unvaccinated population, he said.

Abrazo Health, like much of Arizona and the U.S., said it is also seeing an uptick in more severe cases.

“Abrazo Health is monitoring the increase in cases being reported across the region,” said spokesperson Keith Jones. “Our hospitals are seeing a slight increase in COVID patient admissions consistent with trends being reported by public health.”

Jones said internal processes are constantly being adjusted as public health trends change in order to ensure the safety of all patients and Abrazo staff members as the virus continues to spread, but reiterated that other medical issues should not be put aside amid a potential third surge.

“We also want to emphasize that preventive and emergency care should not be delayed,” he stated. “Abrazo is closely monitoring trends and are making adjustments daily to ensure our staff, physicians and patients are protected.”

For Mayo Clinic, which boasts several facilities in the Phoenix area, processes have not changed much since the start of the pandemic.

“We have never stopped our COVID safety measures that keep all who enter our facilities safe,” said Dr. Alyssa Chapital, hospital medical director for Mayo Clinic in Arizona. “We practice continual emergency preparedness, which means that we have strategies, workflows and resources to meet the demand of increasing patient volume. We have learned and are proficient at providing safe, high-quality care for both COVID and non-COVID patients within our walls.”

And Chapital said the volume is, indeed, increasing. Mayo Clinic has seen an uptick in emergency department visits during the past few weeks, she said, and increased requests for a higher level of care for more acutely ill COVID patients.

“We encourage everyone to consider getting a vaccine and to continue mitigation strategies – washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing,” said Dr. Chapital. “The virus can’t mutate if it doesn’t spread.”