Arizona hospitals and their ICUs are understaffed, reaching capacity

By: - December 10, 2020 4:56 pm

A “prone team,” wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), prepares to turn a COVID-19 patient onto his stomach in a Stamford Hospital intensive care unit (ICU), on April 24, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Photo by John Moore | Getty Images

Several hospitals in Arizona have intensive care units that are understaffed, while across the state more are nearing capacity as ICU beds are filling with COVID-19 patients, according to data recently released by the federal government. 

The data shows the burden being put on hospitals by COVID-19 in both rural and metropolitan parts of the state, with many reaching — and in some cases surpassing — occupancy levels not seen since the state’s infection levels peaked in July. 

A few hospitals are also having issues in regards to staffing their ICU departments. There is already a shortage of ICU space, with a historically low number of beds available this week as the pandemic has worsened as November turned into December. 

The HonorHealth Scottsdale Shea Medical Center only had 58% of its ICU beds staffed in the final week of November, according to the data that hospitals report to the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services. Currently, 19% of the hospital’s ICU beds are being taken up by COVID patients. 

“Every day we monitor bed capacity, equipment, staffing and many other measures at all of our facilities to ensure that we can safety (sic) treat any suspected COVID-19 patients, and all other patients who walk through our doors,” HonorHealth said in a statement to Arizona Mirror. “Our staff have worked tirelessly to provide the best care under the current demands.”

HonorHealth said it is working with state and local experts and reminded Arizonans to wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands and follow other health guidelines. 

The hospital’s capacity is at 64%, much lower than other Arizona hospitals. 

St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tucson, Abrazo West Campus in Goodyear and the Abrazo Arrowhead campus in Glendale all reported being at 100% capacity in late November all had ICUs with staffing levels under 65%. Abrazo, which operates the Goodyear and Glendale hospitals, did not respond to a request for comment. 

At St. Joseph’s, 32% of the ICU beds were reported to be COVID patients. Pima County’s Office of Emergency Management on Wednesday reported that hospitals in the county were at capacity. The HHS data reflected the dire situation in late November, with many Tucson hospitals at or near capacity in the federal report. 

One such hospital was Northwest Medical Center, which reported to HHS that it was at 92% capacity with 13% of its patients having COVID, as were all of its ICU patients. The hospital’s ICU was understaffed, and only 59% of the ICU beds were operational. The hospital did not respond to a request for comment. 

At the Abrazo hospital in Goodyear, more than a quarter of all the beds are filled with COVID patients, as are 24% of the patients in the ICU. At the company’s Glendale hospital, 21% of all the hospital beds are for COVID patients, as is 30% of the ICU. 

St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, run by Dignity Health, also appears to have ICU staffing issues and is nearing capacity. 

The hospital reported being 95% full with approximately three quarters of its ICU beds staffed. Of the ICU patients, 35% have COVID-19. 

The Chandler Regional Medical Center, which is operated by Dignity Health, also is understaffed. The hospital is nearing capacity with 95% of its beds full and 36% of its ICU being COVID patients. Only 82% of its ICU beds have staffing.

Northern parts of the state have been hit hard, with the Flagstaff Medical Center having 84% of its ICU staffed and nearly half of its ICU filled with COVID patients. The hospital is also almost 90% full. 

“The long-term issue has always been staffing,” Will Humble, director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said. Hospitals will likely begin canceling holidays and asking staff to work six to seven days a week, Humble said. 

Gov. Doug Ducey recently announced $60 million in CARES Act money to allow hospitals to give bonuses and boost staffing levels. This is in addition to $25 million he pledged in November. 

“It’s a bidding war,” Humble said, adding that the money will allow Arizona hospitals and the state to outbid hospitals in other states for staff, such as much needed respiratory therapists

Of the 47 hospitals examined in the data by the Mirror, seven were at 100% capacity, 10 were at 90% or above, 11 were at over 70% and seven had more than half of their ICU filled with COVID patients, some of which were understaffed hospitals. 

The Arizona Surge Line, a statewide system designed to help keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by moving patients to different facilities, has seen the largest number of transfers since July when cases were surging, according to AzDHS data. 

During the month of November, the surge line saw more than 750 transfers, a dramatic increase from the roughly 250 transfers in October. In June, transfers nearly reached 1000. 

Some hospitals in rural parts of the state that were not near capacity still have high levels of COVID, like Cobre Valley Regional Medical Center in Globe. The hospital has reported 41% capacity, but 48% of all its patients have COVID. 

Some patients have spent up to 4 months in the hospital for COVID, which can also complicate matters for hospitals. 

“The biggest long-term impact is the number of procedures that get pushed back,” Humble said. Procedures such as knee- and heart valve replacements get pushed back as hospitals continue to reach capacity. Additionally, hiring more staff can be a challenge as well for certain positions. 

Hiring for the ICU, in particular, means that those looking to apply will need to have certifications in specific realms of care. Now there is even training to become a specialized “COVID-19 nurse.” 

Arizona was one of the worst in the nation for its shortage of doctors and nurses prior to the pandemic and legislation aimed at remedying the issue previously stalled in the legislature

The state has not provided funding to the Graduate Medical Education Program for nearly 10 years, which advocates say is contributing to the shortage. The program provides funds to hospitals that provide education and training, such as residencies or internships.

An additional 1,941 doctors are expected to be needed by 2030 to be able to adequately care for Arizona’s growing population, according to workforce projections by the Robert Graham Center.

Statewide, Arizona reported a total of 4,928 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, with the majority of them coming from Maricopa County. There have been more than 387,000 cases of COVID-19 in Arizona and over 7,000 deaths as of Dec. 10, according to ADHS. 

The Arizona Department of Health Services was not able to comment by publication of this story.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.

MORE FROM AUTHOR