Arizona doctors express concern over dwindling number of hospital beds

Posted at 4:27 PM, Dec 07, 2020

PHOENIX — Some doctors around the state are sounding the alarm on the number of available hospital beds - or lack thereof - as coronavirus cases surge.

ABC15 talked with a family physician who worked three surge shifts at a Valley hospital over the weekend and who described concerning conditions.

"The hospital is full, I mean it's completely full," said Dr. Andrew Carroll. "There are hospitals trying to transfer around to our hospital and they're full."

According to the state's coronavirus dashboard, as of Monday, COVID-19 patients made up 42% of all ICU beds statewide. Eight percent, or 143 ICU beds, are listed as available, although it's unclear where. Health officials have routinely pointed out that a bed is not the same as a staffed bed.

"We're already kind of bubbling the pot over, at this boiling point," Dr. Carroll said. "We can't keep adding water to it. It's going to just keep spilling over and that's what's happening at the hospitals."

Dr. Carroll also described what he's seen while filling in at the hospital.

"The scariest part of what I see are patients who are agonizing to breathe," he said. "They just cannot breathe. So they're clawing and they're just getting agitated because they don't know why they can't breathe, even though they've got these big masks on them with oxygen. They still feel like they are drowning on dry air."

In sending out his latest COVID-19 modeling report, University of Arizona Associate Professor Dr. Joe Gerald noted Arizona could see more than 500 COVID-19 deaths each week by Christmas.

In part of his report, he writes: "If not addressed within the next 1 - 2 weeks, this crisis will evolve into a humanitarian crisis leading to hundreds of preventable deaths."

Dr. Matthew Heinz, a hospital physician in Tucson and incoming member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, said they're "definitely seeing a lot more parts of hospitals having to be converted into places where we can have COVID patients."

Dr. Heinz told ABC15 over this past weekend there was a severe limitation on ICU beds. He also referenced the Arizona Surge Line, which is used to transfer patients between hospitals around the state.

"They were just saying, basically, go fish," Dr. Heinz said. "Like, 'we're sorry but we have no current COVID ICU capacity in the state.' That was something that they were saying for a significant portion of this past weekend."

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services disputed the notion the surge line reported zero available ICU beds over the weekend, saying that is "not accurate" and reiterating the 8% ICU bed availability reported by hospitals and displayed on the state dashboard.

Dr. Heinz said the ICU beds are in high demand, and there is little time to process the death of a patient before the room is needed for the next one.

"I'm getting a report of a death of a patient in an ICU, which is, of course, always tragic," he said. "In almost the same breath, we're now discussing when this bed can be made ready for another patient who is in need of that bed, within minutes."

Dr. Heinz paused for a moment.

"We're in a very difficult place," he said.