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Phoenix hospitals face burned out staff, new mutation

Pandemic nears two year anniversary

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As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its two-year anniversary this March, Phoenix hospitals say their staff is burnt out as the virus shows few signs of slowing down and new mutations continue to arrive in the state.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported approximately 18,229 cases and 275 new deaths on Wednesday. Maricopa County accounted for 11,123 cases and 180 deaths. About 40% of ICU beds are currently in use across the state. Just 68.1% of Arizonans are vaccinated. Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer of Phoenix- based Banner Health, said hospitalizations are not expected to peak in Arizona until the middle of February thanks to omicron’s high transmissibility.

“Hospitalization trends in our Arizona market continue to be of concern as confi rmed cases in our state the past three weeks have been at record highs,” she said during a Monday news briefing. “As a reminder, hospitalizations typically lag overall cases in the market by one to two weeks. For this reason, our forecasting models predict that hospitalizations from this most recent Omicron surge will peak around mid-February.”

She said COVID-19 patients now account for a third of their total hospital population system-wide and 87% of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

Bessel noted hospital staff members are exhausted as the virus enters its second year and we continue to learn to live with it as “it is not leaving this earth.”

“Certainly, I know that we are all tired of this pandemic,” she said. “We’ve been at this here at Banner Health for two years of planning and taking care of our communities. Omicron has really overwhelmed our communities. It’s become the predominant strain. It became the predominant strain in a very, very short period of time. And we certainly hope that this will end the pandemic part of what we are experiencing and push us into the endemic part.”

Providers have not been immune to omicron and often call out sick, she added, but Banner has been able to supplement its short staff with external contracted labor.

But Bessel said omicron’s less severe symptoms give the industry hope the burden will be lifted off of their shoulders.

“So our ICUs remain busy, but we are starting to see that shift of decreased severity of this COVID wave compared to previous COVID surges,” she told reporters. “So our ICU numbers are less than they were during our peak of January of the prior year, and we believe that is a direct result of the decreased severity that we’re experiencing with omicron.”

According to data from Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix that sequences positive COVID cases for variants, the week ending Jan. 22 saw approximately 418 genomes, or 100%, identified as omicron. The week before, 1,676 were identified, accounting for about 97% of all genomes sequenced.

But a new subvariant of omicron was just identified in Arizona, as well as several other states after surging in other countries.

Dubbed BA.2, the omicron mutation is not a ‘variant of concern’ for the World Health Organization at this time but it is being monitored. Subvariants are nothing new: The delta variant also had several of its own, but scientists referred to all of them as delta.

Steve Elliott, a spokesperson for ADHS, said the new mutation doesn’t change its guidance for Arizonans.

“Our guidance remains the same: Get vaccinated, get a booster if you are due for one, follow steps proven to reduce the spread, including wearing a mask in public indoor settings, maintaining physical distance and staying home if you feel sick,” he said. “The CDC is a good source of information on variants and their implications.”

Dr. Michael White, chief medical officer of Phoenix’s Valleywise Health, said there is no reason the public should be concerned about the subvariant just yet.

“We will likely see new variants of the COVID-19 disease and COVID-19 virus for a long time to come,” he said during a Wednesday news briefing. “How these variants behave, we just have to monitor. We’ll have to see how it goes over the next few weeks, whether it becomes dominant. It’s too early for us to predict anything at this point.”

White said there were 70 COVID-positive patients in the main medical center this morning and 10 in the ICU. The numbers peaked in January 2021 with 88 in the medical center at once. Currently, 97% of hospitalized patients are not fully vaccinated. He said that vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and new oral antivirals are working in tandem to help the situation.

White noted that hospitalizations tend to peak just about two weeks after Valleywise experiences a testing peak; he said testing “likely” peaked at the end of last week and is hopeful a hospitalization peak is on its way to relieve some burden from his staff.

“Our staff is tremendous,” he said, adding that no one anticipated the virus to go on for this long. “They are dedicated to the care of our patients and providing that exceptional care every day and every time they come to work. But this work is tiring. Folks are becoming tired and I can recognize it as burned out as we see this day over day over day. But for many folks that work in health care, this is a calling, this is what they’ve chosen to do to be able to give back and make sure that we’re able to treat people to help them meet their goals and how they want to proceed in life. But this is wearing on everyone."

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