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Arizona Sets Records For COVID-19 Hospitalizations, ICU Patients

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It is a hazardous time to be living in California or Arizona. Rending 2020 with coronavirus cases surging in almost all this country - and even in that context, those two states are among the highest for infection rates. In a moment, we meet a traveling nurse whose job is to cross the country from one surge to the next. And he's in California now. We begin in Arizona, where Scott Bourque reports for our member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

SCOTT BOURQUE, BYLINE: Arizona's second wave of coronavirus is outpacing the first from June and July. It's now reporting three times as many cases as then. Hospitals still have some bed capacity. But often, there's not enough staff to properly care for patients in those beds.

ERIC SARTORI: There have been times where I've taken three patients. A maximum that a ICU nurse should take at any time is two, safely.

BOURQUE: That's Eric Sartori, an ICU nurse from the affluent Phoenix suburb Scottsdale, who runs a blog called Nurse Eric.

SARTORI: I just feel my body and my mind just, like, collapsing today.

BOURQUE: More than 4,500 people are hospitalized with COVID. And almost 1,100 of those are in ICU beds. Earlier this week, Banner Health said it was starting to turn away or divert some Phoenix-area patients. But many Arizona restaurants and bars remain crowded. There's no statewide mask mandate. And enforcement of social distancing rules is lax at best.

SARTORI: I go, and I see everything that's happening all day long. And football season is still going on. They've normalized complacency with this, so they're going to keep the economy open. I think they really need to keep that in mind.

BOURQUE: When the state legislature convenes on January 11, members will be required to wear masks in the building. But a handful of Republicans have made it clear that they'll deliberately flout those rules and bring protesters with them. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Martin Quezada says he has no faith that those rules will even be enforced.

MARTIN QUEZADA: The members are not going to be appreciative of a sergeant at arms trying to enforce that. So it creates a really sticky situation where it's going to lead to, really, confrontation and just argument about what's going to happen.

BOURQUE: About one-third of all coronavirus tests in Arizona are coming back positive. But the state's transmission rate - or R0 number - has dropped to 1.02, the lowest it's been since September. And so far, more than 19,000 people have received their first vaccine shots. For NPR News, I'm Scott Bourque in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.