A Santa Cruz County resident who required hospitalization for COVID-19 was put on a medical transport plane to Flagstaff last weekend due to an apparent bed space crunch at nearer facilities.

An ambulance crew from the Rio Rico Fire District picked up the confirmed COVID-19 patient on Saturday at Holy Cross Hospital for transport to a hospital offering higher-level care, according to RRFD Deputy Chief Richard Johnson. But instead of bringing the patient by ambulance to a facility in Pima or even Maricopa county, the crew took the person to the Nogales International Airport.

“The flight was going to Flagstaff, and supposedly it was for bed availability,” Johnson said on Monday.

The long-distance transport comes amid a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Arizona, as well as warnings from health professionals that hospitals in the state could exceed their capacities if the outbreak continues unabated.

Data published by the Arizona Department of Health Services on Monday showed that nearly 90 percent of the intensive care unit beds in the state were occupied. One-third of the total beds were in use by COVID-19 patients, a figure that has quadrupled since the beginning of October.

Throughout the pandemic, seriously ill coronavirus patients from Santa Cruz County have had to be treated at hospitals elsewhere – typically in Tucson – due to the limited capabilities of the county’s only hospital, Holy Cross. But when bed space became tight in June and July, RRFD, which is the only local agency licensed to conduct hospital-to-hospital ambulance transports out of the county, began taking some patients to Phoenix or Sierra Vista.

Now, with infections surging again locally and around the state, Johnson estimated that RRFD had taken approximately five patents by ambulance to Phoenix-area hospitals in the past three weeks.

Last weekend’s case was the first one Johnson was aware of in which a local patient had to be flown by airplane to an even further destination due to bed availability, he said.

As for the potential cost to a patient for such a trip, Johnson said that wasn’t in his area of expertise, though he noted that with federal funds being made available for COVID-related relief, “a lot of the standard rules kind of go out the window” when it comes to billing.

Even so, he wasn’t keen on seeing airplane medical transports become a trend.

“Even wth federal money involved, it would be cost-prohibitive for the most part,” he said. “I don’t know what the cost would be, but I know an emergency helicopter ride runs into the tens of thousands (of dollars). I can’t imagine what a fixed-wing going 300 miles is going to be.”

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