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COVID-19 outbreak slows, but Arizona hospitals are busier than ever

Even as Arizona’s COVID-19 outbreak shows signs of improvement, the state’s hospitals are approaching capacity. Hospital ICU beds in the state were  94% full as of this week, an all-time high for the pandemic. There are also more emergency department beds in use now than there were during the pandemic’s winter peak.

“Hospitals essentially have never been busier than they are right now," said Dr. Joe Gerald, with the University of Arizona's Zuckerman College of Public Health. "Even if we go back and look at occupancy numbers in January 2021, we are rivaling those numbers now."

At the same time, Gerald said, COVID-19 cases in the state are leveling off. The state is averaging about 2,600 new cases per day, compared to an average of nearly 3,300 cases per day in late August.

"We are slowly falling off our peak of the third wave," Gerald said. "So conditions, with regard to COVID-19 admissions, are slowly improving."

During Arizona's winter surge, nearly 60% of patients in ICUs were being treated for the virus. COVID-19 patients now occupy about 20% of the state's ICU beds. But far more Arizonans are now hospitalized for other causes than were being treated in earlier waves of the pandemic.

In previous waves, hospitals suspended elective surgeries and some Arizonans skipped routine treatments. Ann-Marie Alameddin, CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said facilities across the state are now trying to catch up with massive patient backlogs that have built up over the past 19 months.

“People, particularly those who may have delayed care during the pandemic, perhaps didn’t get screenings, they have critical medical needs today that need to be taken care of," Alameddin said.

Illnesses such as influenza and West Nile virus are sending more Arizonans to the hospital recently, Alameddin added. And she said hospitals continue to face staffing shortages.

Alameddin said the decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations indicates vaccines and mitigation measures are working. But she said more Arizonans still need to get vaccinated to prevent further strain on the system.

"Everybody has to do their part," Alameddin said. "Particularly as we head into flu season, we just have to make sure that we retain that hospital capacity so that care is there when people need it."

Arizona Coronavirus Cases, Deaths

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Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.