‘Fast and furious’: Phoenix doctors say Omicron not yet at peak

COVID-19 variant reaches hospital staffs

An Equality Health Foundation volunteer handles a COVID-19 test at a community site. The most recent virus surge has further challenged already strained hospital systems in Phoenix.
An Equality Health Foundation volunteer handles a COVID-19 test at a community site. The most recent virus surge has further challenged already strained hospital systems in Phoenix.
Equality Health Foundation

As hospital beds fill with patients, urgent care clinics temporarily close their doors and emergency department waits grow longer, Phoenix doctors are warning the public this most recent wave of COVID-19 has not yet reached its peak.

According to the Arizona COVID-19 sequencing dashboard, the more transmissible and contagious omicron variant is now the dominant strain of the coronavirus in Arizona. While not ever positive COVID case is sequenced, TGen said it has identified approximately 2,259 cases of Omicron thus far — and counting.

At Banner Health, the state’s largest health care system, providers are struggling to meet the immense demand with a challenged staff and dwindling resources.

“There continues to be a national shortage of health care workers,” said Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Banner’s chief clinical officer, during a Tuesday news briefing. “Due to the prevalence of COVID in our community, our team members are also getting sick with the virus. This has resulted in further strain on our hospitals and urgent cares.”

As a result, Banner has been forced to temporarily shutter several of its urgent care clinics across the Valley, leaving open locations with even longer

wait times. Additionally, the one type of monoclonal antibodies proven to be effective against omicron, Sotrovimab, is in extremely short supply; Banner only has two days’ worth on hand to treat eligible patients.

“I’d also like to ask the community to please be patient with us in the days and weeks to come,” said Bessel. “You may experience longer waits or delays due to the significant strain on our health care system. Please also be kind and respectful to your health care workers. They have been under immense pressure for

the past two years and especially during this most recent surge. We will continue to do our very best to deliver timely and appropriate care for all who need us.”

She noted Banner’s forecasting is having a hard time adjusting for the “fast and furious” omicron, but said she is hopeful the variant’s peak is on its way based on its journey in other parts of the world.

“What we currently forecast is that in Arizona, we are not yet at the omicron peak that is likely going to occur in the upcoming weeks,” said Bessel. “What we do know is that the number of cases that are going to be diagnosed here in the state of Arizona will continue to increase. We do expect some increase in hospitalization. But one of the things that we are learning about omicron from experience in other countries that have gone before us is that the descent from that peak will also be very rapid.”

Banner’s forecasting seems to be in line with others as well. The University of Washington’s well-regarded model projects the number of daily reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. will peak at about 1.2 million by Jan. 19 before falling.

Arizona’s cases seem to be skyrocketing in the meantime: the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 18,783 new cases and six additional deaths on Wednesday, not counting those who have not been tested or did not report the results of an at-home test. Approximately 79,015 new tests were reported on Wednesday, with 10.7% returning positive. As of Tuesday, there were just 446 inpatient hospital beds available in the state. COVID-19 patients occupied 74% of beds in use.

Dr. Michael White, chief medical officer with Valleywise Health in Phoenix, said there were 50 COVID patients hospitalized in the main center, along with 52 across its behavioral health facilities. He said the Maryvale hospital hasn’t seen this kind of influx since it reopened in 2019.

“We continue to be challenged around health care staffing with this variant being positive,” said White. “We see this variant coming within our health care staff. Valleywise health continues to follow the CDC guidance around health care workers that are testing positive.”

Like Banner, Valleywise is ensuring that all infected staff members isolate for five days before allowing them to return to work in protective gear if they are asymptomatic.

It’s in stark contrast to the situation at other local hospitals, such as Dignity Health, which is allowing employees with mild omicron symptoms to keep working while ill in order to avoid staffing issues.

White said Valleywise has reached out to the state for military assistance to shore up its struggling staff. As of Wednesday, they had not heard back.

Also like Banner, Valleywise said more than 90% of hospitalized patients remain unvaccinated. White cautioned people against brushing off the omicron variant because it tends to be more mild than previous variants.

“Anytime we see a virus variant that is easily contagious and easily spread within this, it is going to affect a larger number of people,” he said. “Even if it’s declared as mild, it’s really not; it consumes a number of resources. It complicates other health care. It complicates the overwhelming of the system. Even though the symptoms of an individual one person may not be as severe, it may be markedly severe in others.”

White agreed Arizona’s omicron peak is still a ways off, and it will likely get worse before it gets better.

“We have not peaked yet in Arizona and likely will not peak for the next two weeks with the number of positive tests, just based on what we’re seeing the trajectory of the omicron variant, how it’s behaving in other parts of the country,” he said.

“We’re going to continue to see this impact probably for the next four to six weeks, you know, within the state of Arizona, as we see this come up and then start to go back down from there.”


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