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Months later, St. Luke's Medical Center in Phoenix remains on standby

St Luke's Medical Center (AP Photo)
Posted at 6:11 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 23:16:43-05

PHOENIX — It was initially touted as additional help, but as ICU and inpatient beds dwindle at hospitals across Arizona, the state has yet to activate St. Luke's Medical Center in Phoenix.

The facility closed in 2019, but was reopened and renovated in the spring as a potential alternative care facility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, capable of housing hundreds of ICU beds.

Months later, available as an option, it remains unused.

Plans for how the facility could potentially be used have also changed in the months since. The state decided to only use the facility, if needed, for post-acute, or "step-down" care, and not the higher-acuity care initially announced.

An amended contract, which was agreed to in July, indicated the contractor could operate the facility for post-acute care, medical/surgical care, and Intensive Care Unit services, including accepting patients that require mechanical ventilation.

So, as Arizona hospitals have seen a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and patients, fewer beds, and an exhausted staff, why hasn't St. Luke's been used?

"As they went back through, we...identified that there was a reduced number of ventilators that the St. Luke's building could support," said Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ during a Friday press conference. "So it couldn't fully be an ICU. That was just based on the findings by the Army Corps of Engineers."

Dr. Christ also referred back to initial plans in discussing what St. Luke's Medical Center would be used for as an alternate care site.

"When we brought our partners together they said, 'we don't want you to do acute care and ICU beds," Dr. Christ said. "What we really need this for is a post-acute care facility."

Dr. Christ said that the state is currently using staffed and licensed facilities that are already open for post-acute care. She said staffing remains the biggest challenge for opening St. Luke's, but said that the facility remains an option should it be needed.

Regardless of the use, St. Luke's is an untapped resource as the ADHS online COVID-19 dashboard lists 7% availability for ICU and inpatient beds across the state.

"Across our Banner hospitals in the State of Arizona, we are over 100% of our licensed bed capacity," said Banner Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel during a news conference on Wednesday.

During that conference, ABC15 asked Dr. Bessel if she would like to see the state activate St. Luke's.

"At this time, from what I understand in regards to St. Luke's planning, I don't believe that it could be stood up fast enough to assist us in what is coming to us in the next several weeks," Dr. Bessel said. "Of course, it would have always been helpful to have additional hospital capacity within the State of Arizona."

The state spent millions of dollars to renovate St. Luke's. Officials have previously said that once activated, it would take between 7-14 days to prepare the facility to open.

Was it a waste of resources? ABC15 asked Dr. Christ that question on Friday.

"It is always there as potential beds," Dr. Christ said. "But it's not necessarily the beds that are our barrier, it is the staff...I don't think it's a waste of money because we can stand it up if we need to, but right now we do have an adequate number of post-acute beds and so that is what ultimately we landed on St. Luke's being."