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Arizona offers funding help to understaffed Phoenix-area hospitals

Banner not among those seeking assistance

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The state of Arizona is stepping in to help hospitals suffering with severe staffing shortages amid a third wave of COVID-19.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced Sept. 1 that the state would allocate $60 million from the Arizona Department of Health Services to help health systems fill much-needed open positions, namely skilled nurses, as the coronavirus shows no signs of slowing down. But there’s a catch: the hospitals must be administering monoclonal antibody treatments and offering COVID-19 vaccines to patients when they’re discharged.

“Arizona’s health care professionals and all frontline workers are heroes, without a doubt,” Ducey said in a statement announcing the move. “We are working to make sure they have the resources they need.”

While vaccines are widely available, the number of hospitalizations due to severe cases of the virus are on the rise, stressing an already battered health care workforce.

The additional funding and staffing for this select group of hospitals is intended to alleviate some of that stress.

“This latest COVID-19 surge has been challenging for health care workers,” said Linda Hunt, president and CEO of Dignity Health’s Southwest Division, in a prepared statement. “They are exhausted yet continue to step-up in the most heroic ways. The high volume of patients compounded by the shortage of doctors and nurses across the country is creating intense competition for a limited pool of nurses nationwide.”

“This effort will help provide the relief desperately needed for our most valued resource — our staff,” she continued.

ADHS reported 2,609 new COVID cases and 117 additional deaths Tuesday, the most deaths in a single day since February and before vaccines were widespread. Currently, more than 74,745 patients are hospitalized statewide.

Monoclonal antibodies are designed to block the virus’ attachment and entry into human cells, and the treatment can be used for mild to moderate COVID-19 patients. The treatment is typically administered to those early in their infection and can dramatically decrease the patient’s risk of developing severe COVID symptoms.

Expanding the use of monoclonal antibody treatment will help decrease the rate of hospitalizations and help alleviate pressure on hospitals and staff, according to the governor’s office.

The program is already underway, according to ADHS spokesperson Steve Elliott.

“ADHS put out a call for hospitals to apply for the $60 million in staffing assistance, and so far we have booked 300 nurses through our staffing contract, with several dozen scheduled to start next week,” he said. “Monoclonal antibodies are provided through the federal government, and hospitals can order vaccine directly from the federal government. To get the staffing support announced by Gov. Ducey, hospitals must be using monoclonal antibodies and offering vaccination at discharge to all patients.”

Dr. Michael White, chief medical officer for Valleywise Health, confirmed during a Sept. 8 news conference the health system was offering the treatment and vaccines, and hoped to fill its staffing gaps through the new funding.

“We’re excited that the program exists,” he said. “We’re certainly going to be able to utilize that and help us augment our staff, as we have to get us through this and through the surge in patients that we’re seeing.”

Dr. White said the hospital is short 10 to 15 nurses on a daily basis. Across the whole organization, which includes multiple community health clinics, Valleywise has more than 400 positions open, about 150 of which are in bedside nursing.

While he said he wasn’t sure what the final tally of staff would be from the program, White said it’s another tool for the industry to use.

“I think the majority of health care delivery organizations are utilizing all of these tools and providing all these tools and access to all of these tools for their patients,” he said. “I think it’s important for us to make sure that we are improving access and utilizing all the resources that we have available today to help us decrease the burden and use of the hospitals for this COVID-19 disease as best we can.”

On the same day, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer at Banner Health, confirmed they were administering monoclonal antibodies but reiterated that Banner did not offer vaccines.

“The literature shows that for those that meet criteria to be treated with monoclonal antibodies who test positive for COVID-19 that it can absolutely reduce the severity of the disease, as well as the need for hospitalization,” she said. “We have been providing monoclonal antibody treatment to patients for many, many months. And so far, we have treated over 5,700 patients.”

Banner is suffering from staffing shortages of its own: The health system, which operates four West Valley hospitals in Glendale, Phoenix, Sun City and Sun City West, currently has 1,854 openings in Arizona, according to the careers page on its website. Approximately 491 positions are needed to be filled in nursing alone.

Bessel said that Banner had not asked for state assistance.

“We continue to have many positions that are open for core nursing staff, as well as bringing in external contracted labor,” she said. “We bring in a number of nurses each and every week, along with respiratory therapists that get oriented to our Banner Health system and begin to help us out there on the floors.”

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