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Arizona's Largest Hospital System Nearing ICU Bed Capacity

The chief clinical officer at the state's largest hospital network said Friday that Arizona is headed to a health crisis if residents don't change their habits to deal with COVID-19.

Dr. Marjorie Bessel said the intensive-care units at the Maricopa County hospitals for Banner Health already are at full capacity. And other hospitals in Arizona are rapidly approaching that point.

Bessel said that's no surprise, given the increasing number of cases of the coronavirus. The took a big jump Friday, with 1,579 new cases, bringing the tally in Arizona to 24,332.

But she parted ways with Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ who have said that the increase is largely a factor of more people getting tested.

Christ says the stay-at-home order was meant to give hospitals time to prepare and increase their capacity. Statewide, about a quarter of ICU beds are available, but Christ says hospitals can handle a surge.

“That may include looking at staffing alternatives, bringing in volunteers, delaying or cancelling elective surgeries," Christ said. "There’s a number of items within their surge plans they can activate. I believe they came up with about 600 additional ICU beds, and 2600 additional beds that could be brought online if needed.”

→  Arizona Gov. Ducey Says He Expected Spike In COVID-19 Cases

Bessel noted a sharp spike in infections following the decision in the middle of last month by the governor to scrap his stay-at-home order.

"We do have community spread of COVID-19 in Arizona and we have had community spread in Arizona,'' she said, with people infecting each other through close contact and not taking precautions.

That's not all.

"We are seeing an increase in the sickest of the sick,'' she said.

"These are COVID-19 patients who are in the ICU who are ventilated,'' Bessel said. "And those individuals are in our hospitals for a long period of time,'' she said.

In fact, Bessel provided data showing the number of Banner patients on ventilators has tripled in less than two weeks.

Some of what Banner is seeing at its facilities is reflected statewide.

The Department of Health Services reports number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 hit a record 1,234 on Friday. And that comes just a day after the figure was only 1,079.

And deaths in Arizona from COVID-19 are now at 1,012.

So how bad will it get?

"I don't have a crystal ball,'' Bessel said. "What I do know is if you continue to follow a curve like that, at some point we will exceed our capacity.''

The most immediate result of all that would be that hospitals will no longer be able to perform elective surgeries.

That had been the case until late April. But that was because the governor was worried not about hospital capacity but about the limited supply of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment.

He dissolved that order on May 1.

Maricopa County Public Health Director Marcy Flanagan says the public doesn’t need to go back into lockdown — but people still need to take precautions.

"Everyone needs to keep at least 6 feet of social distance between yourself and others whenever possible," Flanagan said. "And when that’s not possible, please wear a cloth face mask when you leave your home."

Arizona Coronavirus Cases, Deaths Bessel said while there's a clear correlation between the end of the governor's stay-at-home order and the sharp increase in cases, she was careful not to say that Ducey made a mistake in allowing the directive to expire. "Whenever you're in a pandemic — and COVID-19 is exemplifying that for all of us — there is going to be a constant need for balance between economic strife and healthcare strife,'' she said. "They are not mutually exclusive,'' Bessel said. "It's important for people to work so they can put food on the table.'' The doctor also said there was "fatigue'' by people about having to comply with rules about where they can and cannot go. "They wish it would go away,'' she said. "It hasn't gone away,'' Bessel continued. "It isn't going to go away any time soon.'' But she said if the state is easing restrictions on travel and gatherings, "we need to take those other behaviors and need to make sure we're doing them exquisitely.'' She said that's especially true when, as now, there are indications of an upswing in infections. One of those, Bessel said, is increased use of masks when people go out or are within 6 feet of each other. Bessel said she follows her own advice. She came into Friday's press conference wearing a mask, taking it off only when she was seated at a table at least 6 feet from reporters. Yet neither Ducey nor state Christ have been wearing masks, not only when speaking to the media but even when they drive to and walk into events together. Ducey has brushed aside repeated questions about his lack of the use of masks, saying he has one if he needs it. And aides to both did not immediately respond Friday to questions about the habits of their bosses. Bessel said those images are crucial to protecting public health. Dr. Cara Christ explains June 4, 2020, why Arizona has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases. "It's important for us as leaders to lead by example,'' she said. The doctor said that each day the state can get through the pandemic without exceeding hospital capacity is a day closer to having a vaccine or, more likely, at least having some type of effective treatment. But she said that those who think that Arizona's hot weather is going to make a difference are mistaken. "We're not seeing that,'' she said, not only here where the thermometer regularly tops the century mark but in other parts of the world like Brazil which had outbreaks through their summer. She said heat — and ultraviolet light — can kill viruses on surface. "But this is a droplet transmitted disease,'' Bessel said. "The way you get it is when you're within 6 feet of somebody and when you're not wearing a mask.'' → As Arizona COVID-19 Cases Surge, Experts Believe Curbing The Spread Is Still Possible And what of surfaces? "That is a lesser type of transmission,'' she said. Along the same lines, Bessel said Arizonans generally should not be worried about handling the mail, that delivery box from Amazon or even the morning paper. "Honestly, you can go read that newspaper,'' she said. "Just bring it in, wash your hands, read the newspaper, wash your hands throughout the day,'' Bessel said. "That's what I do.'' KJZZ's Scott Bourque contributed to this report. → Read The Latest News On The Coronavirus Disease

Scott Bourque was a reporter and podcast producer at KJZZ from 2019 to 2022.