Increase in hospitalizations a growing concern for Northern Arizona Healthcare leadership
By JASON W. BROOKS
VERDE VALLEY – While the increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Northern Arizona might seem small to some, officials are concerned.
And they’re concerned about both the COVID-19 situation in the state and region — and where it could go from here, as the holiday season approaches.
During Wednesday morning’s media briefing, Northern Arizona Healthcare leaders talked about what has changed within the past couple of months as coronavirus cases have spiked across the United States, including Arizona.
“We’ve really seen virus cases spike about three times this year, here in Arizona,” said Josh Tinkle NAH’s chief administrative officer for Flagstaff Medical Center. “But, really, if anyone knows where the numbers will top out and where we’ll really have a handle on COVID-19, they should buy a lottery ticket, because they know the future.”
Dealing with a state that has had averaged more than 2,000 new cases and 22 new deaths reported each day of November, NAH leaders have not had to make many major staffing, equipment or facility adjustments recently. However, they are closely monitoring the rising numbers.
As of Wednesday morning, Verde Valley Medical Center in Cottonwood had 13 patients with COVID-19, and four with tests pending. Ron Haase, chief administrative officer for VVMC, said that’s triple what the facility was averaging as recently as late September, when the total averaged less than five COVID-19 patients at a time.
“You might not think 13 patients is a lot to manage, but we’re a small facility, and that’s a 300% increase,” Haase said. “So, yes, it’s a concern. Don’t mistake our demeanor for how seriously we take this. This is an immediate challenge and a potentially much bigger challenge.”
Haase said the previous two spikes in COVID-19 numbers seemed to have somewhat bypassed the general population of the Verde Valley, but that has not been the case on this third wave.
“We need to get away from ‘It can’t happen here,’” Haase said. “As far as critical care capacity, we’re only eight away (in bed usage) from our previous high. And a further spike would really put us in a tough spot.”
Wednesday, VVMC was using 10 of its 13 critical-care beds.
Dr. Derek Feuquay, chief medical officer for Flagstaff Medical Center, said the third wave also involves travelers coming in from out-of-state. It’s shifting some of the caseload from the Native American areas to Flagstaff proper, as a regional spike is leading to an increase in I-40 cities.
“It’s more of a local concern now, in Flagstaff,” Feuquay said.
Wednesday, Flagstaff Medical Center was using 43 of its 55 critical-care beds. FMC had 32 COVID-19 patients, with 11 tests pending, a few weeks after having cases dip as low as the single digits.
Feuquay said the statewide hospital network is more organized now, and equipment and personal protective equipment are in stock. However, he said, a further rise in cases won’t be easy to handle.
The company’s CEO, Flo Spyrow, said the third wave has started to more deeply create a presence of COVID-19 in communities where NAH staff live. This creates a concern in terms of potential attrition of staff who need to quarantine.
Spyrow also pointed out that Wednesday morning, the drug manufacturer, Pfizer, announced the completion of studies that show 95 percent efficacy on testing of a vaccine. That’s been turned over to the FDA, which will be distributing units in batches of 1,000 to regional and state organizations.
Spyrow said that is welcome news. She said vaccinations among staff, and whether that would be required, are complicated discussions that are still ongoing.
Tinkle said staffing issues for NAH are not an everyday concern, but that can change quickly. He pointed out that the Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minn., but also with an Arizona presence, has had 905 employees in Minnesota and Wisconsin test positive for COVID-19 in the past two weeks.
“Also, we have a lot of nurses who are completely quitting the profession, or who won’t work in a facility that handles COVID-19 patients,” Tinkle said.