Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel

Arizona’s largest hospital system continues to experience record occupancy levels and overflowing morgues, resulting in bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks.

Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel shared in a press conference this morning that 58% of the hospitals’ adult ICU beds and 74% of its ventilators are being used by COVID-19 patients.

Compared to a pandemic-free winter season, Banner hospitals are seeing 160% of their peak winter occupancy.

As more patients die from COVID-19, Bessel said Banner hospitals are seeing two to three times more bodies than they typically store in their morgues, causing some hospitals to place bodies in refrigerated trucks.

According to Bessel, nearly half of their deceased patients died from coronavirus.

Dr. Joe Gerald, a professor at the University of Arizona who creates weekly coronavirus epidemiology reports based on ADHS data, estimates by Christmas, Arizona will see more than 500 deaths a week.

Bessel said Banner expects the peak of the current COVID-19 surge to hit in early to mid-January.

“The biggest concerns as we go into that significant surge and experience that post-holidays in January will be continued strain on our health care system,” Bessel said. “We've had to take steps to reduce or stop elective surgeries and procedures. These are patients that need these procedures. In addition to that, as we have significant more surge forecasted to happen in January, it will cause additional strain on our staffing.”

Banner University Medical Center Phoenix, Banner Thunderbird and Banner Desert have been operating above 100% capacity for “quite some time,” according to Bessel.

Banner hospitals depend on external contracted labor to increase staffing and are “upskilling” current staff to be able to assist COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

“That's maybe taking somebody who normally works on a med surge floor and helping them be able to assist an ICU nurse, for instance,” Bessel said. “We expect to continue doing all of that for the upcoming months until we're over the surge.”

Banner’s top clinical officer said hospitals are expanding their ICU capacity by putting two patients in a room and placing ICU beds in areas previously used for non-critical care.

“We continue to expand to meet the community needs, which again, places stress on the health care system. It requires more nursing care, more respiratory therapy care and more physician care,” Bessel said. “We will continue to expand as best as we can. But we're asking all of you to help reduce the spread of this virus. Please, during this holiday season, shrink your circles and wear your mask. Please help us.”

According to Bessel, COVID-19 patients spend three to four times longer in the ICU than patients without COVID-19.

While an average ICU patient without COVID-19 spends three to four days on a ventilator, Bessel said patients with coronavirus spend 10 to 14 days using one. The continued strain of caring for these patients is often keeping other patients from receiving the care they need.

“This pressure has caused several Banner hospitals to halt or significantly reduce elective surgeries and procedures,” Bessel said. “I want to remind you that elective surgeries can include things like mastectomies for cancer, gallbladder surgeries for infections and hip replacements. These are medically necessary procedures that if delayed for too long, can result in medical complications that then require hospitalization in intensive care.”

Bessel is continuing to advocate for further safety guidelines at the state level. At a press conference last week, Gov. Doug Ducey made clear he isn’t implementing any further statewide mitigation efforts as the virus rages through Arizona.

While she lauded Pima County and Tucson for imposing local mask mandates and curfews, Bessel waits on the state to do more to slow the spread.

“The question as to why the governor has not granted mayors the authority to make mitigation decisions that can be most impactful in curving the trend has yet to be scientifically answered,” she said.

As the state continues to set records for its weekly COVID-19 case counts, Bessel is pleading with the public to follow coronavirus mitigation tactics such as social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent sanitization to quell the transmission of the virus.

“With the holidays right around the corner, shrinking your circle and masking are particularly important. Your willingness and ability to adhere to them can be the difference between life and death. It might not be for your own, but contributing to the spread of this virus will further strain our healthcare system, which will result in delay of timely care or shortage of critical resources like ICU nurses. Those things could have a devastating impact on members of our community who need health care,” Bessel said.

“Most of you did not take an oath to save lives. But today, I'm asking you to join those of us who have so that we can collectively save as many lives as possible during this pandemic.”