This Week in COVID: Banner Uses Corpse Trailer, Restaurants Will Not Close

Arizona's largest hospital system is using a refrigerated trailer to store bodies after one of its Phoenix morgues filled up.
Arizona's largest hospital system is using a refrigerated trailer to store bodies after one of its Phoenix morgues filled up. Courtesy of Banner Health
It's Tuesday, December 22. More than 467,200 Arizonans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 8,120 have died as a result.

An average of more than 5,800 Arizonans are testing positive for COVID-19 each day. That number is down after last week saw a record number of positive tests reported in one day, but still remains far greater than the worst part of the outbreak over the summer.

Arizona has passed 8,000 known deaths from COVID-19. Two thousand of those deaths occurred since the beginning of November and half have been since early August. It took until June 4 to reach the first 1,000 dead in Arizona. This grim milestone means more than twice as many Arizonans have died from the disease this year alone than in all the wars of the 20th century combined.

A Phoenix hospital is storing dead bodies in a refrigerated trailer after its morgue filled up. Banner - University Medical Center in central Phoenix has parked a refrigerated trailer inside the hospital to store bodies, said Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Marjorie Bessel Friday. She told the press that the overflow is due to COVID-19 deaths and a second trailer is on standby nearby.

click to enlarge The refrigerated trailer at Banner - University Medical Center. - COURTESY OF BANNER HEALTH
The refrigerated trailer at Banner - University Medical Center.
Courtesy of Banner Health

Hospital capacity remains critically stretched. Only 8 percent of regular and intensive-care hospital beds are available statewide. As of Monday, 3,925 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide. Of that number, 904 are in intensive-care units and 628 are on ventilators. Bessel said that COVID-19 patients on ventilators average two weeks on the devices. Meanwhile, Banner Health, the state's largest hospital chain, is at 150 percent of its usual winter peak occupancy. The organization is redeploying staff from clinics and corporate positions to try and address the demand.

Bessel called for additional mitigation measures, as well as for Arizonans to wear masks and avoid gathering outside their household. Bessel noted that the White House's COVID-19 task force calls on public health officials to warn the public directly if state and local policies do not reflect the severity of the situation.

"When health care systems become overrun, all care is jeopardized," she said. "When health care systems become overrun, patients will not get the same timely delivery of care. When health care systems become overrun, patients will suffer higher death rates. This could mean the car accident victim, the heart attack victim, the stroke patient, or the child with a severe asthma attack."

On Monday, the Tucson Medical Center said it was canceling elective surgeries through the beginning of January due to staffing constraints. Elective surgeries include procedures that address life-threatening conditions. The hospital had to turn away 80 admissions, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

The White House COVID-19 task force says Arizona is experiencing a full resurgence of the pandemic. The report from last week says mitigation efforts must increase at a state and local level. It suggests significantly reducing capacity in, or closing, public and private indoor spaces — including bars and restaurants. It also calls for focusing on uniform behavioral changes such as wearing masks, physical distancing and not gathering outside of immediate households.
The Center for Public Integrity

Despite the spiraling situation, Governor Doug Ducey has declined to implement new mitigation measures.  At a press conference last Wednesday, Ducey said it was up to individuals to slow the virus, attributing the spread to private gatherings at home. "We're doing everything we can in the public square to slow the spread of this virus," Ducey said. "Now, we're asking people to be personally responsible, and I have every confidence they will be."

On Friday, Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) head Dr. Cara Christ said that she had changed guidelines from the summer so that congregate settings would never be required to close no matter how bad COVID-19 gets. At the height of the summer outbreak, Ducey ordered the closure of  businesses where large numbers of people gather, like theaters, bars and gyms. After some legal wrangling, ADHS issued a scheme a month later under which businesses could reopen at reduced capacity if COVID-19 infections in the surrounding county dropped below certain metrics indicating the spread was "moderate."

However, Christ now says that was a one-way gate: even if spread is once again "substantial," businesses would stay open. Christ justified this change by citing contact tracing data which showed that just 14 percent statewide said they had attended large group settings. Yet data from Pima County shows 26 percent of contact tracing participants had visited a bar or restaurant.

On Thursday, a group of protesters paraded through a Phoenix Target telling people to take off their masks. One witness told the Arizona Republic she was accosted by a maskless young woman who asked her to "explain science" to her.

The owner of a local taco shop has lost his wife and two friends to COVID-19. Ralph Ung owns Taquerías El Chino near the State Capitol. Last Sunday, his wife Lynn Rita Moreno, died from COVID-19. Ung, who struggling to keep his shop in business, lost two close friends to COVID-19 over the summer.

Healthcare workers and vulnerable elders have begun receiving COVID-19 vaccinations. On Wednesday, a group of nine frontline workers, including nurses and a Phoenix firefighter, received their vaccinations alongside Dr. Christ. Five sites in Maricopa County have been established for eligible people to receive their shot and just over 5,000 people have received the vaccine so far. Experts say it will be a months before the vaccines make a difference in the overall spread of COVID-19.

click to enlarge MARICOPA COUNTY
Maricopa County
A new strain of COVID-19 has emerged in England. The strain is faster-acting and more infectious than other iterations of the virus, but not more deadly. Experts say the vaccine should still be effective against it.

Christmas could worsen the current outbreak. The current outbreak is driven in part by infections from Thanksgiving gatherings and travel. You can prevent things from getting worse by not gathering with people outside your immediate household. If you do see other people, limiting time, meeting outdoors and wearing masks are key to staying safe. The governor of Sonora, Mexico, has said the state will establish checkpoints to dissuade paisanos from visiting for the holidays. 
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter