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Arizona hospitals looking at churches, hotels, sports fields to get 8K beds ready for coming coronavirus cases

Stephanie Innes and Chris Coppola
Arizona Republic
Published 6:41 PM EDT Mar 27, 2020

Arizona hospitals are scrambling to find 8,000 more hospital beds statewide before new coronavirus cases start surging in the next few weeks. 

Hospital executives are looking at converting conference rooms and surgery centers —and possibly even churches, hotels and football fields — into patient bed space to meet an April 24 deadline imposed by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Ducey’s executive order on hospital capacity, issued Thursday, says Arizona hospitals must increase their bed capacity by 50%, which means growing by 8,000 beds statewide to reach a total of 24,000 within the next month in order to prepare for a possible influx of patients ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The peak of COVID-19 could hit in mid- to late April, with the peak of hospitalizations in May, state health officials say.

“We do have some contingency plans in place. We’re taking time now to match that up with the timelines and the things the governor is talking about,” said Dr. Richard Gray, CEO of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, speaking within hours of Ducey’s order.

The Mayo Clinic is in the midst of doubling the size of its Phoenix campus, which includes increasing patient beds by 25%, from 280 to 374, though the timing of the governor’s order is much faster than Mayo officials had planned. 

“We do have to take some significant actions. In times like this, we will step up and we will find a way to get it done and to get patients taken care of safely,” Gray said. “It may not be exactly the way we would do it if we had two or three years to do it, but we will find ways to meet the challenge.”

Patients could be treated in churches, hotels, tents

Banner Health, Arizona’s largest health system, is looking at, among other things, converting nonclinical spaces such as conference rooms and using surgery centers to increase its bed capacity for coronavirus patients, officials said this week, noting that they have already increased bed capacity at Banner hospitals by canceling elective surgeries.

The Phoenix-based nonprofit health system has a team that is exploring other creative ways to increase bed capacity beyond the walls of its hospitals and clinics, if needed. Those ideas include putting up tents in parking lots and football fields and working with community leaders to house patients in hotels and local churches, Banner’s chief clinical officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said.

A tent for extra hospital beds is pictured at the Phoenix VA on March 19, 2020, in Phoenix.
Eli Imadali/The Republic

Bessel said Banner is already learning about patient surges from COVID-19 at its Colorado hospitals.

At Valleywise Medical Center, operated by Valleywise Health, officials have converted the pediatric emergency department into a COVID-19 care unit with 19 beds. Pediatric ER patients are now being treated through the adult ER.

The nonprofit public health system is looking at using a 16-bed clinical decision unit at its Maryvale hospital for a COVID-19 unit if necessary, spokesman Michael Murphy wrote in an email.

Additional Valleywise Health spaces are being evaluated within the acute care facilities such as the preanesthesia care unit, recovery room and procedure areas. 

The health system is conducting internal testing for patients and employees who are suspected to have COVID-19, which allow them to rule out negatives quickly and keep necessary hospital beds and equipment available if and when a surge occurs.

Dignity Health said it has already identified locations in its hospitals where COVID-19 patients could be cared for in places where exposure to the general patient population is avoided.

“Any capacity concerns at our hospitals would involve a coordinated effort with our local public health agencies and with other nearby hospitals,” a statement from Dignity says.

“We are continuously collaborating with public health agencies and other health care systems in our community to ensure that patients who need care can access a facility with appropriate capacity.”

A statement from Phoenix-based HonorHealth says that it has a “surge plan in place” to deal with an influx of cases due to COVID-19, but the nonprofit health system did not give specifics.

“We continue to monitor the evolving situation and make any adjustments to our surge planning, as needed,” HonorHealth said.

Closed St. Luke’s to help COVID-19 care?

A group from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Arizona health department tour the currently closed St. Luke’s Medical Center hospital to see the viability of reopening the facility for possible future use due to the coronavirus Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Phoenix
Ross D. Franklin, AP

The Arizona Department of Health Services has already talked about converting shuttered hospitals such as St. Luke’s Medical Center, 1800 E. Van Buren St., into bed space for patients should the need arise. The state is also prepared to put up field hospitals — large tents filled with hospital beds — in both Phoenix and Tucson.

In issuing the order, Ducey is asking individual hospitals to build up their bed capacity now, “ahead of any increased demand is the responsible thing to do.”

The governor’s order came one day after the state’s top health official said that in a worst-case scenario, Arizona could be short 13,000 hospital beds for treating a surge of COVID-19 patients. The state already has about 16,000 licensed inpatient hospital beds, and according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report, has one of the lowest per capita rates of hospital beds in the country.

“In Arizona, we are fortunate to have time to prepare, and we have a responsibility to bring additional hospital beds online, find needed supplies and identify critical equipment, including ventilators,” Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director, said in a news release.

“We’re focused on working to make sure hospitals across the state build their capacity. … As public health officials, we have a responsibility to prepare for the worst-case scenario to plan for a pandemic.”

Ducey’s order also says:

Hospitals need public’s help

Before Ducey ordered all elective surgeries be halted in the state to allow better preparation for COVID-19 patients, Mayo Clinic in Arizona had already begun canceling what it deemed “non-urgent” patient care, which Gray said has been “very difficult” for many Mayo patients.

“That has been very successful. It has freed up capacity and we’re ready to take on a surge,” Gray said.

Gray emphasized that preventing the worst-case patient surge that Ducey’s order envisions is going to take an effort from more than just hospitals in Arizona.

“It’s extremely important that the public really respond with the social distancing messages, the hand hygiene, the respiratory etiquette —  those kinds of things will make perhaps much more difference than anything our hospitals are able to do with capacity planning,” Gray said.

“It’s those types of things that will make the surge of patients not all at once, and will allow us to take care of all the patients who do get sick at the highest level of care.”

Reach health care reporter Stephanie Innes at or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes

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This content was originally published here.