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Sicker Patients, Nursing Shortages: Arizona Hospital Leaders Describe Strain Amid 3rd COVID-19 Wave

The number of Arizonans with COVID-19 in hospital intensive care units is at its highest point in six months and the state's health care facilities are increasingly strained.

“While we are not yet at the same level [of COVID-19 hospitalizations] that we were in the prior surge earlier this year, the increase that we’re experiencing is very concerning,” Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer with Banner Health, the state's largest hospital system, told reporters Wednesday.  

The average daily number of new cases reported in Arizona has increased more than 500% since late June. But throughout the pandemic, many Arizonans delayed necessary medical care, so hospitals were already catching up with unseasonably high demand from patients needing other forms of treatment when more and more COVID-19 patients started arriving in emergency rooms and ICUs over the summer. 

“We hadn’t really recovered as a health care system from the first two waves. People are tired,” Dr. Stephanie Jackson, senior vice president and chief clinical value officer with HonorHealth  told KJZZ’s “The Show.”

Jackson said HonorHealth is competing with hospitals nationwide to try to fill nursing vacancies. Banner Health and Valleywise Health also report staffing shortages in Arizona facilities. 

Dr. Michael White, chief clinical officer with Valleywise Health, told reporters Wednesday that the Valleywise Health Medical Center has recently been short more than 20 nurses per day. 

"Prior to [the pandemic] we would always have some days where we were short, but never in this double-digit range," White said. "This is new for us." 

As hospitals struggle with staffing shortages, they are also treating sicker patients. White said the delta variant of COVID-19 is more aggressive in the body than previous strains of the virus, causing patients' conditions to deteriorate more quickly. He said it's also infecting otherwise healthy people.

“It is a younger patient population than we have seen in the previous two waves. Our average age today of the patients that are in the hospital is 49,” White said. “We’re seeing 20- and 30 year-olds that are being hospitalized." 

Health care leaders across Arizona report more than 90% of current hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Just 47% of Arizonans are now fully vaccinated. The rate remains below the national average. White, Bessel and Jackson each expressed frustration that the current surge of cases and hospitalizations could have been avoided. 

“This is a devastating virus that continues to be in our community," White said. "We have tools available to prevent this.” 

→  'There's No End In Sight' — Metro Phoenix Hospitals Again Seeing Rise In COVID-19 Patients

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent. She has produced work for NPR, New England Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, PRI's The World, Washington Post, Reuters and more.She has a master’s degree in radio journalism from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.She lives in central Phoenix with her husband, two daughters, and ill-behaved cat and dog. Her side-passions include photography, crosswords and hot sauce.