YUMA, AZ — Arizona's border communities are still seeing major spikes of COVID-19 cases and Yuma County is a hotspot for a second time since the pandemic began.
The county is home to more than 213,000 Arizonans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yuma Regional Medical Center is the place where residents go for care, but right now the hospital is being overwhelmed with patients.
Nurses Sarah Thompson and Morgan Hodges have worked in the emergency department for years.
It's getting the brunt of this new wave and patients could wait 10 hours to be seen.
Thompson said, "As a whole, it's been really tough to see what the patients have had to go through."
She's getting by most days with the help of her colleagues like Hodges, who describes hectic days trying to keep up with the increasing number of patients.
"The toughest days are of course days that we lose patients, but a close second are days we are so busy to where we have 20 to 30 people waiting in the waiting room but we're also getting EMS and paramedic traffic nonstop. So we're tight on rooms and we have really sick patients and every time we try to bring a patient from the front, a new one comes in," Hodges described.
The staff got a brief reprieve after the summer surge of coronavirus cases before things started ticking up again. Yuma County, along with Santa Cruz County, is experiencing the highest rate of spread across Arizona.
As of December 16, the percent positive of COVID-19 tests was 17.5%, compared to Maricopa County at 11.8% and Pima County at 9.4%, both with more than five times the population.
Nurse Zamira Hernandez is currently working in the hospital's packed COVID-19 unit. She told ABC15 while holding back tears, "It's hard because I mean, it's hard for us here... having to see the patients that they're here very sick and without their families."
Because of an influx of patients, the hospital had to open a second COVID-19 unit. Anyone who goes in has to have a gown, gloves and two masks, and if they are treating patients, a face shield as well.
When asked about capacity, the concern was focused on the personnel rather than beds. They have the rooms but not enough nurses to staff them.
According to YRMC officials, the hospital is short about 30 medical surgical nurses and 20 ICU nurses. Weekly, they are adding to the staff but often it only helps replace those they lose who can't work for personal virus-related illness.
Hospital President and CEO Dr. Robert Trenschel admits the situation has gotten dire and says the current situation is "unsustainable."
"If our projections hold true, it's going to be a very difficult slog here in terms of what's going to occur, so we need that nursing staff," he warned.
YRMC has cared for more than 1,900 hospitalized COVID-19 patients since March. Officials say they could see more than 1,000 patients hospitalized in the next month.
During the summer surge, YRMC's peak saw 178 patients hospitalized with the virus in a day, but officials went on to say conservative projection models are showing them exceeding 256 COVID patients in early January.
Staff all over the country are fatigued and posting videos and messages expressing frustration.
Dr. Cleavon Gilman is a doctor contracted to help at YRMC. His social media post about the lack of ICU beds went viral, as did news that he'd been fired, but Dr. Trenschel says it was a misunderstanding.
"By no means do we want to stop people from expressing what they're saying, we encourage that in fact, but we also...need to not sow panic in the community. We need to make sure the community knows the accurate situation that we're in right now and that's what we do," Dr. Trenschel commented.
When broken down by zip code, Yuma County had the top two or three worst areas across Arizona every day last week.
But there is good news on the horizon with the vaccine. It should be here in a few shorts weeks and it can't come soon enough for all those still tirelessly fighting on the frontlines.
Nurse Breanna Caraway is the admin director for the emergency department and ICU.
She's been at the hospital for more than 20 years.
She said, "Our staff is an amazing team of people. They're working hard every single day. We're going to continue to support that because we're not not going to lose sight of keeping our patients the center focus of everything that we do and we're going to get through this together."