2 metro Phoenix hospitals have put up patient tents. Here's why

Stephanie Innes
Arizona Republic
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White tents have been deployed outside the emergency department at Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, seen here on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.

White patient tents deployed outside of two Valley hospitals may give the alarming impression of a COVID-19 surge or another health crisis, but that's not why they are there, officials say.

Tents set up outside of Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix and Dignity's Chandler Regional Medical Center are for routine emergency room care, hospital leader say ― triaging less serious patients during winter months when Arizona has more residents; respiratory viruses are more likely to be circulating; and hospital volumes are likely to be higher than usual.

Dignity Health and other health systems at times used tents during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they've also been used in past years during winter months, Dignity Health spokesperson Carmelle Malkovich wrote in an email.

"The use of triage tents have been used for many years when we see an influx of patients seeking care at our emergency departments," she wrote. "They are an effective form of hospital preparedness to accommodate higher patient volumes while providing safe care for every patient seeking emergency care."

Dignity Health officials say the tents will stay up throughout the "respiratory season." Typically, the heaviest season for flu and other respiratory virus activity in Arizona is in January through March, though that can vary. This season, flu arrived earlier than usual.

Hospitals across Arizona have been seeing higher volumes of patients in recent months due to the early and unusually severe season of both influenza and RSV ― respiratory syncytial virus. Cases of both flu and RSV appear to have peaked, yet case levels remain far higher than usual, state data shows. Reported cases of flu are seven times higher than they were at this time last year, the data shows.

COVID-19 remains in circulation but hospitalization levels in Arizona remain relatively low at 89% below the peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations in January 2021, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. The highly transmissible XBB.1.5 subvariant is increasing in prevalence across the U.S. and could increase in Arizona over the next few weeks. People who are older and have weakened immune systems are most at risk of hospitalization.

White tents have been deployed outside the emergency department at Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, seen here on Friday, Jan. 20, 2023.

Arizona hospitals are facing staffing challenges due to a nursing shortage and staff burnout, which affects hospitals' ability to respond to patient needs. But Malkovich wrote that the tents at Dignity are not related to staffing challenges.

Malkovich told The Republic that emergency room wait times right now vary at Dignity hospitals.

"Patients who are not experiencing a medical emergency may experience a longer wait time than a patient who is seriously ill or injured," she wrote. "In an effort to reduce the strain on our emergency departments, we encourage patients to seek the appropriate level of care for their medical condition. This may include speaking with their primary care doctor or visiting an urgent care for mild symptoms."

Officials with Banner Health, which is Arizona's largest health care delivery system, told The Republic this week that their Arizona emergency rooms are busy but "still have the capacity" to treat patients needing emergency care.

"Wait times may be long for those utilizing emergency rooms for non-emergent health needs," spokesperson Becky Armendariz wrote in an email. "If your health concerns are not emergent or life-threatening, consider alternative care settings like primary or urgent care."

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has an online tool where patients can compare emergency room wait times at hospitals. The median wait time Arizona patients spend in high volume emergency departments before departing from the visit is 3.6 hours, which is higher than the national average of 3.1 hours, according to the most recent data, which was last updated Oct. 26.

Dignity St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center had a median wait time of 3.2 hours, the most recent federal data says, while Dignity's Chandler Medical Regional Medical Center had a lower median wait time of 1.8 hours.

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

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