State health officials don’t know how many COVID-19 hospitalizations there are

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The Arizona Department of Health Services doesn’t know how many Arizonans have been hospitalized for COVID-19, despite a mandate from the governor requiring all hospitals to report such information. 

“Due to the evolving nature of the response, ADHS has limited statewide data on hospitalization and outcome status for individuals with COVID-19,” agency spokeswoman Holly Poynter told Arizona Mirror in a March 27 email.

Poynter was responding to a Mirror request for ADHS data on COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized, in an intensive care unit and on ventilators.

According to ProPublica, 17 states are regularly reporting this information publicly. Arizona is not among them.

“Throughout this process, I’ve made it clear in Arizona we are going to take a calm and steady approach, making data-driven decisions and act with urgency to protect public health and build capacity in our healthcare system,” Gov. Doug Ducey said during a press conference Monday afternoon announcing new “enhanced physical distancing measures” that encourage people to stay at home except for essential tasks. 

When asked by a reporter why Arizona doesn’t have the same information sharing points than other states, Ducey said he’s “made a commitment” to be “timely and transparent.”

“When I know something, you’re going to know something,” he said. “We are putting out all the information that I am being briefed on every morning and every evening on the website.” 

There’s no data on COVID-19 hospitalizations in that online portal.

Arizona has been under a public health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic since March 11. On March 23, Ducey signed several executive orders, among them one that issued an Enhanced Surveillance Advisory to require all hospitals in the state to share metrics every 24 hours on COVID-19 cases, patients, supplies and testing with ADHS. 

Specifically, Ducey’s order requires hospitals to report daily the number of: ventilators in use and ventilators available for use; ICU beds in use and ICU beds available for use; impatient beds in use and inpatient beds available for use; and emergency departments beds in use and emergency department beds available for use. Hospitals also have to share: the shortage and surplus of personal protective equipment; medical supply and equipment shortage and surplus; per day staff call out; and a description of the current triage process. 

“We are still gathering all of this data,” ADHS spokesman Chris Minnick said in a March 27 text message. 

Poynter, the ADHS spokeswoman, said the agency is evaluating how to use the state’s disease surveillance system, known as the Medical Electronic Disease Surveillance Intelligence System, to publically share statewide information on COVID-19 hospitalizations and case follow-up.

“This evaluation is ongoing, and there is currently no timeline for when it will be available,” she said in a March 27 email.

ADHS Assistant Director Jessica Rigler said last week the agency is reviewing what “can and cannot be posted due to privacy concerns.” She said the number of COVID-19 cases may have to reach a “critical mass” before they can begin to report the number publicly. 

Minnick said numbers on COVID-19 hospitalizations are also reported to ADHS by county health departments. 

“We have some data from the counties, but not from every county,” he wrote. 

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health latest report from March 30 shows of the 689 coronavirus cases registered in the state since January 26, 122 resulted in hospitalizations and 46 of those needed intensive care.   

The state’s second most populous county, Pima County, has reported 187 COVID-19 cases. Aaron Pacheco, a community relations manager with Pima County, said Monday coronavirus hospitalizations aren’t publically available. 

“We are tracking it just not developing a full report everyday,” he said. “Everybody is doing their best. We have a lot of priorities on the table right now.”