State health director tells Arizona hospitals to 'fully activate' emergency plans

As COVID-19 numbers in Arizona climbed last week, the state health director sent a letter to hospitals urging them to "fully activate" emergency plans.

Hospitals are also being asked to prepare for crisis care, and to suspend elective surgeries if they are experiencing a shortage of staff or bed capacity, Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director, says in the June 6 letter.

The letter was sent on the day after the chief clinical officer of Arizona's largest health system — Banner Health — said ICU bed occupancy was growing, and that if current trends continued would exceed capacity.

One day later, Banner Health said it had reached capacity for its nine ECMO machines. ECMO stands for stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — it works like an external lung and is for patients whose lungs get so damaged that they don't work, even with the assistance of a ventilator.

Overall, COVID-19 numbers in Arizona have jumped, hospitalizations have increased and as the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests showed increases, too. Some experts say Arizona is experiencing a spike in community spread of COVID-19, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is at least 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu and can cause prolonged illness.

Chris Minnick, a health department spokesperson, said in a text message that the letter's message was a repeat of what the state told hospitals on March 25.

"We sent another letter to remind hospitals of the importance of activating their plans if they have not already done so," Minnick said via text.

As of Monday, Arizona cases of COVID-19, rose to 27,678 with 1,047 known deaths. Maricopa County has the 26th highest number of confirmed cases of any county in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University. The disease has caused 110,845 deaths in the U.S. and 404,304 worldwide, the Johns Hopkins data says.

In her letter, Christ asks hospital leaders to review a state crisis plan in order to "make determinations for moving your facility from conventional care to contingency care and prepare for crisis care."

Christ also told hospitals to fully activate their emergency plan, in keeping with an executive order from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey that calls for expanding hospital bed capacity, first by 25% and then by 50%.

It's unclear how many hospitals in the state have put in place plans to expand their bed capacity beyond 25%. In mid-April, the president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association asked Ducey to ease his order requesting a 50% increase in hospital bed capacity. The hospital association could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

At the time, Ann-Marie Alameddin wrote that the public health interventions that Ducey and his team implemented had proven effective and that the data and predictive models suggest hospitals had adequate capacity to meet peak COVID-19 demand.

But some experts have speculated that the expiration of Ducey's stay-at-home order on May 15 combined with Memorial Day revelry may have resulted in less social distancing and more spread of COVID-19.



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