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2 years after Arizona's first COVID-19 cases, the health care system is still straining

Wednesday marks two years since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Arizona and the state’s health care system is facing  more strain than ever.

According to the  Arizona Department of Health Services, the state’s inpatient beds are 95% full as the latest COVID-19 surge continues to infect thousands of Arizonans per day. COVID-19 patients now occupy about 40% of all inpatient beds in the state. Medical experts expect Arizona's caseloads  will begin declining soon. But hospitalizations likely won't peak  until mid-February

“I don’t think any of us expected that we would still be dealing with it to the magnitude that we’re dealing with it two years past that initial case,” Valleywise Health chief clinical officer, Dr. Michael White told reporters Wednesday.

White said in many ways, the situation has improved since the start of the pandemic. He noted lifesaving vaccines are now widely available, and researchers continue to develop new treatments for COVID-19. 

But he said two years of sustained pressure on the health care system have seriously stressed the industry. 

"We have seen a continued attrition of health care workers," White said. "Our staff is tremendous. They are dedicated to the care of our patients, providing that exceptional care every day, every time they come to work. But this work is tiring." 

When this surge subsides, White said one challenge will be rebuilding the health care workforce.

Another challenge, he said, will be addressing a massive backlog of non-COVID-19 patients. He said Valleywise is still having to delay many non-emergency surgeries or treatments because of staff shortages and high patient volumes. He expects that will impact Arizona health care for a long time to come.

“We have a lot of work in front of us," White said. 

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