Some Santa Cruz County residents who require hospitalization for COVID-19 infections are now being transported farther away from the local area for treatment.

The Rio Rico Fire District, which has a license to conduct hospital-to-hospital ambulance transports out of the county, took two patients to Phoenix hospitals and one to Sierra Vista in the past week, according to RRFD Deputy Chief Richard Johnson.

Previously, seriously ill COVID-19 patients from Santa Cruz County were transported to Tucson hospitals for treatment due to the limited capabilities of the county’s only hospital, Holy Cross.

“As this COVID progresses, we’re starting to see transports to different destinations and farther destinations,” RRFD Chief Adam Amezaga said on Monday.

“It appears that they’re trying to regulate and make sure that we don’t overwhelm Tucson entirely,” Johnson said, but noted that he couldn’t say definitively why the individual patients were directed to particular hospitals.

Statewide, 84 percent of inpatient beds and 88 percent of intensive care unit beds were in use on Sunday, according to data reported by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Last Thursday, Gov. Doug Ducey said that the state’s hospitals could reach surge capacity “very soon,” the Arizona Republic reported.

The Phoenix transports came on June 25 and June 26, Johnson said, and the Sierra Vista transport was conducted on June 28. Two of those patients were from Nogales and one was from Tubac. All were transported from Holy Cross.

The long-distance transports can create extra challenges for fire department personnel as well as the patients.

“If you go to Phoenix instead of Tucson, you’ve doubled the amount of time you’re in the back of the box with someone that’s potentially sick and contagious, so it is a concern,” Johnson said.

“It’s also a concern in that, if this patient happens to be having difficulty breathing, it becomes an issue as far as just having an adequate amount of oxygen to make a two hour trip,” he added.

Amezaga said RRFD is working on ways to reduce the risk for personnel during longer transports by creating airflows with the A/C system and fans in the ambulance; purchasing UV lights; and trying to secure filters for the department’s PAPR ventilators, which he said create an “enclosed breathing system.”

“I’m hoping this trend does not continue,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Department reported a total of 1,781 confirmed COVID-19 cases in local residents, with 88 hospitalizations and 22 deaths. Those numbers represent an increase of 231 cases, 20 hospitalizations and nine deaths compared to a week earlier.

The county also reported 923 recovered cases on Tuesday. Its reporting of recoveries has been inconsistent, with long periods of stagnant numbers followed by bursts of additions, which makes it difficult to judge trends over short periods of time.

State data reported on Monday gave Santa Cruz the dubious distinction of being the Arizona county with the highest per-capita rate of confirmed infections. The county has long had the state’s highest rate of positive results on the test that detects active COVID-19 infections. On Monday, the local positive test rate was 28.2 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 11.7 percent.

Hospitals full in Nogales, Sonora

Insufficient hospital bed space for COVID-19 patients has already become a problem in Nogales, Sonora.

Speaking during an online news conference on Saturday, Enrique Clausen Iberri, the state health secretary, said that hospitals in Nogales, Sonora and the port city of Guaymas in the southern part of the state had run out of space to treat patients.

“The hospitals are already full, there are no longer beds to give to infected patients who need to be hospitalized, and the contagion in both cities continues to grow,” Clausen said.

He urged the residents of both cities to practice “extreme confinement” in order to stop the spread of the disease.

“It’s urgent to take into account that this is something very serious that’s happening in these two municipalities,” Clausen said.

Numbers released by Clausen’s office on Sunday evening showed 1,303 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 104 deaths in Nogales, Sonora.

A week earlier, those numbers stood at 994 confirmed cases and 76 deaths. On June 7, those numbers were at 751 confirmed cases and 60 deaths.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Clark.)

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