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As COVID-19 Hospital Crunch Worsens, Banner Morgues Surpass Capacity

The influx of coronavirus vaccines has stirred some holiday cheer in Arizona. But the runaway pandemic's escalating pressure on hospitals means far too many will still face a bleak holiday season.

Only a day after she gave some of the first vaccinations to Banner Health employees, Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel warned of the virus's toll on Banner facilities.

"We are experiencing a full resurgence equal to the summer surge, but without the needed aggressive mitigation across the state," said Bessel.

Bessel compared Arizona unfavorably to Banner's Colorado and Wyoming markets, which have seen reductions in new cases, positivity rates and bed utilizations after implementing stricter statewide safety mandates.

In Arizona, COVID-19 cases doubled during November and again in the first two weeks of December; by the end of the month, doubling could take less than a week.

Meanwhile, the death toll is rising.

"These deaths have caused us to exceed our morgue capacity at some of our hospitals, which has resulted in the use of refrigerated trucks to expand our morgue capacity," said Bessel.

"One of these trucks is currently in use at Banner University Medical Center, Phoenix, and another is at a Banner storage facility on standby." 

Although triage conditions have not yet been met, roughly half of all hospital and ICU beds is occupied by someone with COVID-19. Such patients require a great deal of attention and care.

"Many of them are hospitalized for a prolonged period of time. And if they're in the intensive care unit, they will spend an average of two weeks on a ventilator," said Bessel.

Bessel says ventilator use by COVID-19 patients has increased by 500% since Nov. 1. 

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.