Feverish, sneezy patients continued to clog East Valley emergency rooms Wednesday as a wicked flu outbreak maintained its grip.
But a new hospital and the expansion of another should ease pressure on overwhelmed area hospitals next winter.
That may be cold comfort, however, to those suffering through 10-hour waits now. And state health officials anticipate a few more weeks of misery before flu activity in the Valley starts to taper off.
The number of confirmed flu cases reported to the state Department of Health Services has practically doubled each week since before the holidays, with 1,435 confirmed cases as of Dec. 31 and "a lot more already in our in-box," said state epidemiologist David Engelthaler.
"The brunt of it, unfortunately, is being felt by our health care system," he said. "People rush to ERs when they may not need to."
Unprecedented population growth also has put Valley hospitals well behind the curve over the past several years, illustrated by the unprecedented closure Sunday of Banner Baywood Medical Center’s emergency department. The east Mesa hospital closed its doors for three hours with its 239 beds full and 90 people waiting.
A federal health care investigation is under way. Two licensing inspectors visited the hospital Wednesday.
"We want to collect information so that we knew what it was that caused them to make this decision, and to be of assistance to them as they are dealing with this situation that is occurring primarily in the East Valley," said Kathy McCanna, program manager for medical facility licensing with the state Department of Health Services.
Banner Baywood CEO Don Evans said he stands by his decision to temporarily shut the ER doors, but hopes meetings with other Banner hospital executives will result in a more synchronized system. The Banner Health chain has nearly 1,300 hospital beds in the East Valley.
"We didn’t have the beds, nor did we have the treatment areas within the emergency room," Evans said. "We were in a position of putting (patients) at risk."
But Evans and other health care officials said emergency rooms should see some relief in the next few years as the number of hospital beds begins to catch up with the East Valley’s population explosion.
In the spring, the 88-bed Mercy Gilbert Medical Center is due to open, followed by Banner Baywood’s 123-bed expansion in September. Two more hospitals are expected in 2007 — the 165-bed Banner Gateway Medical Center in Gilbert and a 170-bed facility under construction in Mesa by the IASIS Healthcare Corp.
And still, it may not be enough.
"That will help ease the problem considerably," said John Rivers, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. "But even with the additional (beds) we are still somewhat at the mercy of the severity of our flu season."
Other than Hurricane Katrina, Rivers said he’s never heard of a hospital closing its doors. But he also doesn’t recall as brutal a flu season.
"From everything I hear, we’re at our limit right now in terms of our ability to handle patients," he said.
Arizona is one of four Western states designated with a widespread flu outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s highest designation for flu activity.
State officials will be hosting a pandemic flu preparedness conference Friday in Phoenix, featuring Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and CDC director Julie Gerberding. Gov. Janet Napolitano leads a National Governor’s Association effort to update state plans and coordinate with the federal government.
Unlike the typical flu season, a pandemic would be a brand new strain of flu to which no one has immunity. Health officials believe a flu pandemic is inevitable and a state plan has been in the works since 2000.
The conference is designed to help businesses, schools and families learn how to prepare.
Waiting game: To avoid long waits in hospital emergency rooms, health officials urge people who are still well to get flu shots. For flu shot providers, call Community Information and Referral at (602) 263-8856 or go online to
Stay well: To avoid spreading the flu, stay home when you’re sick and keep sick children home from school. Wash your hands frequently and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Avoid hospital emergency rooms if possible by calling your doctor or going to an urgent care facility.