AzHHA advocates for health care workforce and vaccinations as pandemic continues to strain hospital resources

As the pandemic continues in Arizona, case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths remain high, and hospitals throughout the state are still strained. 

 

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According to the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), over 3,000 new cases and 51 new deaths were reported Friday alone, contributing to a total of 3,346 total COVID-19-related deaths and 17,516 hospitalizations in the state in the last six months. Additionally, community transmission rates are still categorized as high across the entire state. 

ADHS also reports that hospital ICU bed availability across the state remains extremely low, with 91% of ICU beds occupied as of Oct. 21. The majority of ICU beds are currently taken by patients hospitalized for causes other than COVID-19, with COVID-19 patients currently taking up over 25% of ICU beds, compared to over 60% during the winter months. 

Despite this decline in ICU bed usage by COVID-19 patients, resources and staff within hospitals continue to be overwhelmed as they deal with the backlog of patients who had put off treatment for other conditions, as well as patients that had their elective procedures and other inpatient services suspended by hospitals, in the last 19 months. 

A report by Dr. Joe Herald, associate professor at the Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, predicts hospitals will continue to struggle to meet high seasonal demands through February, especially as flu patients begin to come in and staff shortages persist. 

Meghan McCabe, the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association’s (AzHHA) new director of government relations, said that advocating for its members’ workforces will be its top priority moving forward.

“Members had told us repeatedly that their top pain point right now is health care workforce. It’s not letting up. This is both a short-term and a long-term problem and we’re really thinking about solutions for both — having a sustainable workforce in place right now in the short-term, as well as strategies and opportunities to grow the pipeline and bring in new talent to care for Arizona patients.”

McCabe said AzHHA will focus on educating policymakers to make the best decisions on behalf of hospitals and their workforces.

“I think it’s important to remember that this is a long running pandemic, and it’s still the reality for hospitals, day in and day out … staff is tired, they’ve been on the frontlines of this pandemic for the long haul, and it’s not over yet. We’re here to be Arizona’s hospital advocate. What we’re focused on at the moment is helping educate policymakers so that they can make informed decisions and the best decisions possible for Arizona hospitals and our health care workforce.”

While case numbers and hospitalizations remain high, ADHS reports 58.7% of people in the state are currently vaccinated, compared to over 60% in neighboring states Washington and California. Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association (AzPHA), reports that 19% of the state’s 8,754 general ward beds are occupied primarily by unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

Gov. Doug Ducey re-affirmed his adamant disapproval of vaccine mandates in a letter addressed to Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin on Wednesday in response to Tucson City Council’s decision last week to terminate all unvaccinated city employees.

In a series of tweets, Ducey stated:

“It’s unfathomable that after a year as tough as last, the Tucson City Council voted to FIRE unvaccinated city employees. The state Legislature has spoken on this issue — they want Arizonans and their sincerely held beliefs to be protected from overreaching mandates.

I took an oath to uphold Arizona’s laws and ensure they are faithfully executed, and I will continue to do so. My office has informed the City of Tucson that their policy is in conflict with the law and, as such, should be rescinded.

I encourage all Arizonans to get the vaccine against COVID-19. It is the best way of keeping you and your loved ones safe. But the law is clear — vaccine mandates are NOT permitted in Arizona.”

Health care institutions were deemed exempt from Ducey’s ban on vaccine mandates. McCabe discussed vaccine requirements for employees at Arizona hospitals, whose leaders have generally reported high compliance rates.

“As a health care organization, we know vaccines are safe and effective, that vaccination is one of the best strategies we have to come out on the other side of this long-haul pandemic. I think it’s important to focus on that as number one. Ultimately, we know there may be some staff who choose not to get vaccinated, and that’s the reality. 

But what our members are doing to help is make sure that employees have the opportunity to get as much as education and scientific information on vaccine safety and efficacy, and the opportunity to ask questions if they still need to make a decision, and so I think our hospitals are ensuring that that education and information is available, that people can make an evidence-based decision about getting vaccinated.”

McCabe also mentioned initiatives AzHHA is taking to assist COVID-19 patients in navigating the health care system, including the COVID-19 supportive palliative care through telehealth program.

“This program links those long-haul COVID-19 patients with the right health care providers so that they can access that long-term care that they need as they work through their illness.”