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Latest COVID counts result of community spread; it is not all from more testing, Banner doctor says

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer of Banner Health, warns Friday, June 5, 2020, of the increase in COVID-19 cases since the governor dissolved his stay-at-home order. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer of Banner Health, warns Friday, June 5, 2020, of the increase in COVID-19 cases since the governor dissolved his stay-at-home order. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

PHOENIX — The chief clinical officer at the state’s largest hospital network said Friday, June 5, that Arizona is headed to a health crisis if residents don’t change their habits to deal with COVID-19.

Dr. Marjorie Bessel said the intensive-care units at the Maricopa County hospitals for Banner Health already are at full capacity. And other hospitals in Arizona are rapidly approaching that point.

Bessel said that’s no surprise, given the increasing number of cases of the coronavirus. They took a big jump Friday, with 1,579 new cases; adding another 1,119 to the tally Saturday brought the Arizona total to 25,451 (see related story, page 2A).

But she parted ways with Gov. Doug Ducey and state Health Director Cara Christ who have said that the increase is largely a factor of more people getting tested.

The doctor noted a sharp spike in infections following the decision in the middle of last month by the governor to let lapse his stay-at-home order.

“We do have community spread of COVID-19 in Arizona and we have had community spread in Arizona,’’ she said, with people infecting each other through close contact and not taking precautions.

That’s not all. “We are seeing an increase in the sickest of the sick,’’ she said.

“These are COVID-19 patients who are in the ICU who are ventilated,’’ Bessel said. “And those individuals are in our hospitals for a long period of time.”

In fact, Bessel provided data showing the number of Banner patients on ventilators has tripled in less than two weeks.

So how bad will it get?

“I don’t have a crystal ball,’’ Bessel said. “What I do know is if you continue to follow a curve like that, at some point we will exceed our capacity.’’

The most immediate result of all that would be that hospitals will no longer be able to perform elective surgeries.

That had been the case until late April. But that was because the governor was worried not about hospital capacity but about the limited supply of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment. He dissolved that order on May 1.

Bessel said while there’s a clear correlation between the end of the governor’s stay-at-home order and the sharp increase in cases, she was careful not to say that Ducey made a mistake in allowing the directive to expire.

“Whenever you’re in a pandemic — and COVID-19 is exemplifying that for all of us — there is going to be a constant need for balance between economic strife and healthcare strife,’’ she said.

“They are not mutually exclusive,’’ Bessel said. “It’s important for people to work so they can put food on the table.’’

The doctor also said there was “fatigue’’ by people about having to comply with rules about where they can and cannot go.

“They wish it would go away,’’ she said. “It hasn’t gone away. It isn’t going to go away any time soon.’’

But she said if the state is easing restrictions on travel and gatherings, “we need to take those other behaviors and need to make sure we’re doing them exquisitely.’’ She said that’s especially true when, as now, there are indications of an upswing in infections.

One of those, Bessel said, is increased use of masks when people go out or are within six feet of each other.

The doctor said that each day the state can get through the pandemic without exceeding hospital capacity is a day closer to having a vaccine or, more likely, at least having some type of effective treatment.

But she said those who think that Arizona’s hot weather is going to make a difference are mistaken.

“We’re not seeing that,’’ she said, not only here where the thermometer regularly tops the century mark but in other parts of the world like Brazil which had outbreaks through their summer.

She said heat — and ultraviolet light — can kill viruses on surfaces.

“But this is a droplet transmitted disease,’’ Bessel said. “The way you get it is when you’re within six feet of somebody and when you’re not wearing a mask.’’

Along the same lines, Bessel said Arizonans generally should not be worried about handling the mail, that delivery box from Amazon or even the morning newspaper.

“Honestly, you can go read that newspaper,’’ she said.

“Just bring it in, wash your hands, read the newspaper, wash your hands throughout the day,’’ Bessel said. “That’s what I do.’’

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