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Banner CCO: Second Spike Will Be Smaller If Arizonans Keep Up COVID-19 Precautions

LAUREN GILGER: While we wait for a vaccine, wearing masks is still considered the best form of protection against COVID-19. Health officials continue to encourage Arizonans to wear masks in public and practice social distancing to avoid spreading the virus or other germs like the flu that could worsen our current situation. Yet not everyone is convinced these precautions are still necessary. Scottsdale  opted to cancel its mask mandate despite a countywide mandate that's still in place. Gov. Doug Ducey has allowed more businesses like bars to reopen to patrons, albeit in a limited capacity. And if you've looked at your social media feeds lately, you may have noticed more people are gathering, sometimes with safety in mind and sometimes not so much. Now, health experts worry that as we grow more lax, the virus could again spread at rates we saw in July. I spoke with Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, and she's worried hospitals across the state could be overwhelmed if we're not careful.

MARJORIE BESSEL: So, you know, every winter we have influenza and other respiratory illnesses that strike us. So that's something that we do on an annual basis anyways. With COVID, we're watching other parts of the world and even other parts of the country. And we know, like most pandemics we're likely going to have another wave or another spike. And for us here in Arizona, it is very possible — probably likely — that it will occur during influenza season. So it's something that us as a hospital system and state of Arizona [are] very much looking to and preparing for.

GILGER: What do you think is going to lead to that second spike? Like why do you think this is inevitable?

BESSEL: So in general, that's just how pandemics usually go anyways. One of the things that I think we continue to learn about COVID-19  — and of course, it's a novel virus, so we learn every single day more about it — is that we do have some control over that. So although most pandemics will have a second wave or a second spike, we know how this is being transmitted, and we know there's some things that we can absolutely do to kind of control more of our destiny. You've probably heard me say this multiple times, but it's about wearing your mask, staying physically distant, staying home when we're ill, washing our hands and not going to large congregations of people. That's how the virus just loves to spread. And so if we can stay true to avoiding those types of things and doing those best behaviors, we can control how large that second spike will be for us.

GILGER: How large it will be. So do you believe this time around Arizona's hospital systems will be better prepared?

BESSEL: Yes. So we've learned a lot through what happened in the summer, and we continue to prepare ourselves and be even better prepared. We know a lot more about how it's transmitted. We learn every day how better to take care of patients. Our staff know how to keep themselves safe, so they can be there and take care of everybody who needs us — both COVID patients as well as everybody else who's non-COVID that still needs health care despite a pandemic going on.

GILGER: Yeah. So let's talk about what this looks like in people's everyday lives. Like, there are these very basic things that we need everyone to keep doing, but people are trying at the same time to get back to some sense of normalcy, right? Like people are just sick of this, I think in a lot of ways. Being able to send their kids back to school is one, being able to go out to a restaurant and do it in a safe way. Like, do you think that there is a way to balance these things, or how might those efforts sort of keep us from truly getting back to normal?

BESSEL: Yes. You know, as we've learned more and more again about how this disease is transmitted, we're also learning about ways to be safe and to do some of those things in life that not only do we like to do, but some of them are critically important. And you mentioned one of them, right? Getting children back to school is so important. Children need to be in school — it's how they learn, it's how they learn social skills for their future well-being. It's how many of them receive nutrition, and it's how we watch over the safety of them. It's just so incredibly important to do that. So we're learning how to do those things. But, you know, I get it. It's hard to wear a mask. You know, those of us in the health care field, we've been wearing masks much of our professional life. But we get it. We don't wear them in our personal life. And we get that many of you out there don't wear masks in your work environment. And so it is hard and people are getting tired. I just ask all of us to just remember about the things that we're trying to accomplish — getting kids back to school, getting businesses open, being able to go and hopefully eat outside at a restaurant or be socially distanced enough that you can go to your favorite restaurant and still be safe to do so are important things for us to do while we're waiting for the pandemic to come to an end.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So as we mentioned before, Maricopa County's mask mandate is still in place. The Governor's Office is encouraging people to keep wearing masks, to keep social distancing, to keep doing all of these things. But then you have cities like Scottsdale, on the other hand, who have rescinded the mask mandate there. And of course, that's overridden by the county's mask mandate. But do decisions like theirs sort of interfere with those messages?

BESSEL: You know, it's very difficult. And we just talked about how people get tired. Of course, everybody wants the pandemic to come to an end, and yet it isn't coming to an end yet. And we still have a ways, potentially a long ways to go into 2021 before it does. Whenever we get mixed messages, I think it's very difficult for all of us in the public to really understand what's going on. And so those mixed messages, when a city does one thing and a county does another, certainly can lead to confusion. But I will tell you, on behalf of myself and other care providers within Banner Health and all of us who are scientists following the pandemic, masking needs to continue. There's just no other way around it. It's one of our best ways forward to do all those things we were just talking about — keep schools open, keep businesses open, let us do some things that we need and like to do in our lives. And masking is a way forward for us. But one of the nice things that we have here in the Phoenix area is it's fall, and so it's starting to get nice out. And so there are some other things that we can do, both masking and also unmasked outside when you could stay 6 feet away from folks and maybe have a picnic where you're socially distancing. We've got a lot of fun things that we can do now that the weather is turning for us. So different than other parts of the country who are facing their fall and winter season.

"It's about wearing your mask, staying physically distant, staying home when we're ill, washing our hands and not going to large congregations of people. ... We can control how large that second spike will be for us." — Dr. Marjorie Bessel

GILGER: One last question for you, Dr. Bessel. What do you think the long-term implications of this will be on our health system, on hospital systems like yours? Like, do you think you will forever be better prepared for something like this, or that this has given a big challenge and has left a dent?

BESSEL: So I think we'll probably have a little bit of both of those things. So anytime any health system is challenged, whether it's an infectious disease outbreak or something else that might happen, we always learn from each and every event. But, you know, I mentioned a little bit ago about our health care heroes, and I just cannot, I just cannot overemphasize how much they have done. And yet, you know, for some of them, this has been incredibly taxing and it will leave a mark on them. There are some who, you know, will have a very hard time getting over some of the things that they've seen. It's very difficult for them to have taken care of patients who die without their family at their bedside. Those things will leave a mark. We're doing a lot to help them heal and rest during this time. They're getting ready for a potential second spike. But again, these memories of what it's been like for them to take care of these very, very ill patients during the COVID pandemic will likely stay with them for the rest of their lives.

GILGER: All right. That is Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, joining us. Dr. Bessel, thank you so much for the time this morning.

BESSEL: Thank you so much. And I appreciate you allowing us to tell our message.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.