While COVID-19 cases have declined for the second week in a row, the top clinical leader of Arizona’s largest hospital system warns the state’s medical facilities remain overloaded.

Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said 44% of Arizona’s hospitalized patients have COVID-19 while 60% of ICU hospitalizations are for coronavirus patients.

The state’s seven-day average positivity rate for the virus is at 16%, according to Bessel. While this is lower than the peak of Arizona’s winter surge, health experts say communities should maintain a rate below 5%.

Bessel said the cause for the decline in cases is “multifactorial.” The holiday season of large gatherings is over, and the natural trends of any pandemic contain surges and declines.

But with the upcoming Super Bowl Sunday this weekend, Banner’s leader warns everyone to continue to avoid large gatherings to prevent another COVID-19 spike.

“Any gathering of individuals with whom you don't live with offers the opportunity for spread to occur. When you're with others that you don't live with, wear your mask appropriately and certainly do not go out and gather with individuals if you are not feeling well,” Bessel said. “We hope that everybody can take appropriate precautions so that we do not have another spike post this upcoming Super Bowl Sunday, like we did after Christmas, for instance.”

Banner to expand elective surgeries

On Jan. 22, Bessel announced Banner will resume some outpatient surgeries and procedures that require no more than a one-night stay and no ICU care would resume.

As of Feb. 1, Banner hospitals expanded these criteria to include all outpatient surgeries and inpatient surgeries that require no more than three nights stay in a regular inpatient bed or one night’s stay in the ICU. However, the ultimate decision to conduct a surgery will depend on conditions at each facility.

While hospitals continue to be inundated with COVID-19 patients, the backlog of delayed surgeries makes conditions even busier.

“It's a delicate balance that we do all the time during winter, it's a little bit more complicated, of course, now during COVID-19 season,” Bessel said. “But our intent is to make sure we manage it adequately so we can take care of all of you, both COVID and non-COVID needs.”

More contagious COVID-19 variant identified in Arizona

Although COVID-19 cases are declining, the emergence of the virus’ more contiguous mutations could cause a worsening spread in the future.

Coronavirus variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been discovered in the U.S. In Arizona, at least three test samples have come back positive for the presence of the UK variant, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Bessel said the vaccine may not work as well against the variants as the original coronavirus, but the current COVID-19 vaccines still provide protection.

“While research is ongoing, vaccines appear to be less effective against this variant, though still within the protective range and are highly recommended,” she said. “There's still a lot unknown about the COVID variant and what it will do to the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. For this reason, we continue to stress when it's your turn to get your vaccine, please get vaccinated.”

Banner leader stresses the importance of getting vaccinated although supply is limited

All of Arizona’s counties have progressed to phase 1B of COVID-19 vaccinations, but vaccine supply remains constrained at the federal, state and county levels, Bessel shared.

“The issues in the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain continue to remain. We have more demand than we have supply,” Bessel said. “We continue to work collaboratively with our department of health individuals that are in the different counties where we provide vaccination. But we do need more vaccine. There's not enough of it in this country at this time to meet the demand.”

Given the strained vaccine supply, Bessel encourages everyone who qualifies to receive a vaccine to register for an appointment when their turn comes.

“I want to assure you that we take great pride in this work and know the level of responsibility that is upon us. We are committed to administering all usable vaccine that we receive as quickly as we possibly can,” she said. “Please get the vaccine when it is available to you. I cannot stress how important it is to get the large majority of Americans vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can.”