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Arizona Health Care System Strained As Coronavirus Cases Surge


Arizona is confirming 9,000 new coronavirus infections every day. The surge there is among the worst in the nation, and hospital leaders say they are stretched to the limit. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Katherine Davis-Young reports.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: December was a record month for COVID-19 cases and deaths in Arizona. And this week, the CDC reports Arizona has had about 122 new cases for every 100,000 residents, far above the national average of 68 per 100,000. Saskia Popescu is a George Mason University epidemiologist based in Phoenix. She says Arizona's worsening outbreak is not unexpected.

SASKIA POPESCU: It's watching something unfold that is very predictable and very heartbreaking because all you want to do is try and stop it.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Most businesses that had been closed during the state's summer surge were allowed to begin reopening in August. Since that time, the governor and the state health department have not called for any new closures, even as caseloads started soaring in late fall. Dr. Michael White, with Valleywise Health in Phoenix, says his hospital now has no available ICU beds, as a Christmas and New Year's surge is beginning to become apparent.

MICHAEL WHITE: Certainly, mitigation in early December would have helped us decrease the burden that we are likely going to see now.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Governor Doug Ducey has said businesses in the state already have plenty of safety guidelines in place. But for weeks, hospital leaders have been calling for the governor to halt indoor dining, impose a curfew and issue a statewide mask order.

MARJORIE BESSEL: I ask for these things every week, and I will continue to ask for them.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Doctor Marjorie Bessel with Banner Health says her hospitals are operating above licensed bed capacity, with patients being held wherever they can fit. And with staffing already so limited, she says it's making Banner's vaccine rollout more difficult. Banner operates in six states, but Bessel says none of the other locations' hospitals are stretched as thin as Arizona's.

BESSEL: We need additional mitigation. We need enforcement of those mitigation activities. And we need everybody to do their own part.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Epidemiologist Saskia Popescu says without major intervention, it's clear where Arizona is headed.

POPESCU: We're going to continue to see cases, and the hospitals and the public health infrastructure will be overwhelmed.

DAVIS-YOUNG: The worst, she says, is almost certainly yet to come.

For NPR News, I'm Katherine Davis-Young in Phoenix.

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Katherine Davis-Young