Arizona Hospital Closes Operating Room so Staff Can Be Reassigned to Surging COVID Cases

A decision made by the Copper Queen Community Hospital in Bisbee, Arizona is encapsulating the struggle faced by hospitals across the state, and across the country as COVID cases and hospitalizations rise.

The 13-bed hospital has closed its operating room, opting to allow those nurses to care for inpatient cases, which meant they had to cancel 17 colonoscopies Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.

The decision by the small hospital reflects the current state of affairs across Arizona and in many parts of the country as hospitalizations are increasing across several states as the holidays approach.

Hospital executives and public health officials held a press conference Tuesday encouraging Arizona residents to get vaccinated and take other measures to prevent the spread of COVID during the holidays.

The physicians said during the press conference vaccinations are the best way to save hospital beds, because a vaccine makes it much less likely someone will be infected when they come in contact with COVID, and if an infection does occur, the presence of a vaccine makes it significantly less likely that a case will become severe enough to require hospitalization.

"Our messaging today is to ask for assistance. We need less COVID patients," Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief medical officer at Banner Health said.

The group also urged residents to skip Thanksgiving gatherings if they aren't feeling well and to get tested quickly to catch potential COVID cases early and any necessary treatment can begin to stop cases from becoming critical.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Arizona, COVID, Vaccines
First lady Jill Biden (R) looks to a young person getting a Covid-19 vaccine as she and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (C), and Doug Emhoff (R), husband of the vice President, tour a Covid-19 vaccination site at Isaac Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona, June 30, 2021. Arizona's public health officials held a news conference Tuesday to issue a plea for residents to get vaccinated and do what they can to slow the surge of COVID cases and hospitalizations in the state. Carolyn Kaster/AFP via Getty Images

The numbers of coronavirus infections and hospital stays are trending up, as they did this time last year as families gathered for the holidays, culminating in a crushing demand at hospitals.

People can comfortably go to holiday gatherings with a small group of vaccinated people but should avoid or at least wear a mask at larger gatherings where it's unclear if others are vaccinated, the doctors said. They acknowledged that many people are tired of virus mitigation measures but said it's critical that they continue taking steps to control the viral spread, including wearing masks.

Someone spent all day searching for a hospital to take a critical patient with congestive heart failure and in need of dialysis before finally transferring the person late Monday night, said Dr. Edward Miller, chief medical officer Copper Queen Community Hospital. The hospital, which lacks an intensive care unit, doesn't normally care for critical patients.

"We are having problems down here," Miller said.

Arizona hospitals are used to seeing a big influx of patients in the winter as respiratory viruses like the flu abound and the population swells with tourists and snowbirds, many of them elderly. Adding COVID-19 to the mix adds a significant strain.

Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is now Gov. Doug Ducey's adviser on COVID-19, appealed to people to look beyond their sense of individualism and get vaccinated for the good of their family and community. But pressed repeatedly on whether Ducey is undermining public health messages by declining to wear a mask indoors himself, Carmona avoided criticizing the governor who hired him.

"I see some public officials wearing masks and I applaud them for doing that," Carmona said. "But we don't have the authority to order anybody to do anything."

Among the toughest challenges for hospitals has been staffing. Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists are exhausted after nearly two years of treating COVID-19 patients. And the competition for new hires and temporary help is fierce as infections rise throughout the country and the world.

"Just because we have ventilators available in our warehouse does not mean that we either have a place to send them or we have staff that is trained to support them," Dr. Theresa Cullen, Pima County's health director, said in a separate news conference.

Arizona on Tuesday reported more than 3,000 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 120 more deaths. The case number was an undercount due to a reporting issue with one provider, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Virus-related hospitalizations continue to climb, with 2,551 COVID-19 patients occupying inpatient rooms as of Monday. That's about half the number of virus hospitalizations during the peak of last winter's surge but currently there is little available capacity statewide because many hospitals are also caring for large numbers of non-COVID patients.

Arizona's seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Arizona was just under 4,000 as of Sunday, up from just over 3,000 two weeks earlier, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Meanwhile, the rolling average of daily deaths rose from 36.3 to 41.3 during the same period.

A rubber band can be stretched only so far before it snaps, said Dr. Keith Frey, chief physician executive for Dignity Health.

"We're very close to that point," Frey said. "Exhausted nurses. Exhausted doctors. Please help us help you."