Female doctor talks to female patient in hospital office while writing on the patients health record on the table. Healthcare and medical service.

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases could push hospital staff and hospital bed capacity to the limit in coming weeks, particularly if people are not careful over Thanksgiving, an Arizona hospital official said Nov. 24.

Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said its projections show the system will be using 125% of its licensed hospital beds by Friday, Dec. 4, as it grapples with typical winter rise in patients and the sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. She compared the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to Memorial Day weekend, when unrestricted gatherings were followed by a sharp spike in coronavirus cases.

“If you reflect back in May, you know that Memorial Day weekend was a significant catalyst that caused continued exponential growth of our COVID pandemic here in the state of Arizona,” Bessel said at a press conference.

Unlike May, however, when Arizona was one of the few states facing a COVID-19 surge, the current outbreak is widespread. That means hospitals in the state will be hard-pressed to find relief workers from other states, Bessel said, even if they can work around the shortage of beds.

“We have been accumulating pharmaceutical supplies, beds and ventilators since the surge in the summer, and we believe that we are prepared,” she said. “What we will have a shortage of will be staff.”

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services said the agency is not able to comment on projections from Banner or any other external organization. But Holly Poynter said that while “hospital ICU bed availability has decreased over the past few weeks, there is still adequate capacity in Arizona’s hospitals.”

The department’s COVID-19 dashboard showed that, as of Monday, Nov. 30, 89% of ICU beds in the state were occupied, leaving 189 beds available. That is more than were available at the height of cases in the summer, Poynter noted.

Bessel’s comments come just days after Arizona health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued pleas to the public to tone down holiday celebrations, staying home, limiting the size of gatherings, wearing masks and meeting outside where possible, among other steps.

“The best mitigation that you can do as an individual out there is to keep your circle tight. Once you break that circle, risk goes up,” Bessel said.

Bessel said Banner just hired 1,000 out-of-state staff to work the winter surge that Arizona hospitals normally face, and it is looking to hire more. But “the entire country is surging at the same time. This is significantly different than what Arizona experienced in the summer.”

If Banner gets to 125% of bed capacity, Bessel said it would “cause quite a bit of stress on our health care system,” but she does not think it would require drastic steps like “a triage situation.”

“We have a lot of plans in place to be able to meet that demand, but it is going to be stressful on our health care system and we won’t be the only one.”

Poynter said Arizona DHS has put a number of measures into place to help hospitals manage bed capacity, including a “surge line” that allows hospitals that don’t have the capacity to care for a patient to search online and find an available bed.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association said hospitals will be able to share the load across the state.

“The good news is hospitals have come together during this pandemic response,” said Holly Ward, the association spokesperson. “Chances are we will see spikes in the communities. But we are very optimistic that we won’t be in the situation where it’s statewide ... (where) there are no beds available.”