Phoenix-Area Hospital Leaders Are Pleading For COVID-19 Mitigation Before It's Too Late

Dr. Keith Frey, Dignity Health Chief Medical Officer - Arizona Division, speaks at a virtual press conference. Around him are top doctors from Arizona healthcare systems.
Dr. Keith Frey, Dignity Health Chief Medical Officer - Arizona Division, speaks at a virtual press conference. Around him are top doctors from Arizona healthcare systems. Screenshot
Top doctors at all five Valley hospital systems Wednesday reiterated their call for more mitigation measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

At a livestreamed press conference, the leaders said that they are actively preparing for a situation where they would need to triage care — meaning doctors decide who would receive life-saving care and who wouldn't.

HonorHealth Chief Clinical Value Officer Dr. Stephanie Jackson said her healthcare system, which operates six hospitals, has triage officers on standby.

“That is why we are here today," Jackson said. "To tell you how serious [the current situation] is."

The doctors did not give estimates on how far off a triage scenario might be. They emphasized that they are expanding as fast as they can to avoid such a disaster but said that the current rate of cases is unsustainable.

Nearly two-thirds of all intensive-care beds statewide are currently in use by COVID-19 patients. Mayo Clinic Hospital Medical Director Dr. Alyssa Chapital said patients are being put in areas meant for radiology or surgery recovery and some hospitals are doubling up patients in rooms. She said hospitals are still placing people in "patient care" areas, meaning they have not reached the level of a Los Angeles hospital that placed people in the gift shop.

The biggest challenge remains staffing. Chapital said that hospitals are calling back care providers from retirement and moving outpatient care providers to hospitals. Complicating efforts, the healthcare systems are also trying to staff vaccination sites.

“Our healthcare givers are very tired. They have been working nonstop since [nearly] the beginning of 2020 to deal with the pandemic,” said Jackson with HonorHealth.

All five doctors called for additional mitigation measures, more enforcement, and greater personal responsibility from Arizonans.

“We know mitigation is going to be what helps us get through the pandemic,” said Valleywise Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Michael White.

The five healthcare leaders previously wrote to Governor Doug Ducey in early December asking for increased mitigation measures, such as an end to indoor dining, bans on gatherings larger than 25 people and group athletic activities, a 10 p.m. curfew, and a COVID-19 plan that closes businesses when case rates rise, not just opens them when they fall.

They reiterated that call Wednesday and also asked individual Arizonans to step up by avoiding unmasked gatherings, following physical distancing, and staying home when possible.

“Personally, if you wanted to keep your friends and family safe, indoor dining is not a good idea," said Jackson. "…My advice to you is to order out.”

Currently, Arizona is averaging more than 9,500 new cases of COVID-19 each day and saw the total death toll jump by just short of 200 people since yesterday. While vaccinations are underway, experts warn it may take months until they start to make a difference.

“I’m a little worried that everybody is seduced by the fact that there are vaccines rolling out," Arizona State University Biodesign Institute executive director Joshua LaBaer said today. "Keep in mind the number of people getting vaccinated right now is tiny.”

Governor Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services head Cara Christ have deflected calls for greater state-level mitigation measures, saying that what is in place is sufficient and the issue is enforcement. Christ has pointed out that California has more stringent mitigation measures than Arizona but is also seeing a surge in cases.

Asked about this, Dignity Health's Arizona chief medical officer Dr. Keith Frey reiterated the need to do something to limit spread between Arizonans.

“I just want to come back to the evidence," he said. "We believe at least one in 10 Arizonans [has COVID-19]. And most of them do not know it yet.”

A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
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Erasmus Baxter is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Erasmus Baxter