COCHISE COUNTY — Local hospitals in Benson, Bisbee and Sierra Vista are still reporting relatively low totals for COVID-19 cases and deaths as numbers increase in the state, but that is not stopping medical providers from being prepared.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 29 hospitalizations within Cochise county Tuesday, making up less than 1% of total hospitalizations in the state.

At the Benson Hospital, there are currently no COVID-19 patients in the in-patient unit, according to Ashley Dickey, the marketing executive director for the local hospital.

The hospital reported an increase in testing, both active COVID-19 testing and antibody testing, and has internally processed 150 tests in total with only a handful of positive cases, according to Dickey.

“We are actively working to increase the number of patient beds if we do need to follow the executive order in our area,” Dickey said. “Being a small facility, it becomes more difficult after that point because we don’t have the other equipment and the staff that would be needed.”

With no intensive care unit, Benson Hospital is able to expand bed capacity by 25% and adjusted the personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements for hospital employees.

“We’re ready if it does, but we’re not sure if it will hit,” she said. ”We’re rural so people are more spread out. We live in one of the biggest counties in the state, so our towns are very spread out and we don’t get the same hit.”

Cochise County reported 240 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday and 5 deaths while, as a whole, Arizona surpassed 30,000 cases with over 1,200 deaths.

“With the first wave of COVID, we didn’t notice a positive case for the first almost month, so we’re behind the metro,” she said, comparing it to cities like Phoenix. “It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it probably would happen later.”

The first COVID-19 case within the county was confirmed March 20, almost two months after the first reported case in Arizona, Jan. 26.

Hospitals in the area, including the Copper Queen Community Hospital, began preparing for cases after the first Arizona case in January, said Chief Medical Officer Edward Miller.

The local hospital in Bisbee only had one case of COVID-19, a man who died from lung cancer which was accelerated by the virus, according to Miller.

“We haven’t had anybody else in our hospital with it,” he said. “We still enforce all our precautions.”

The hospital staff meets weekly to prepare and discuss their COVID-19 rates, according to Miller. Some of these preparations include expanding bed capacity by 50% and setting up a 14 day supply of PPE.

Visitors are still not allowed in the hospital, temperature checks are enforced and patients and staff wash or sanitize their hands multiple times in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Miller said the people most at risk for COVID-19 include people 75 and older, people with poorly controlled or chronic illness, and people with morbid obesity.

“Fortunately, the rest of the population doesn’t appear too affected by the disease,” he said. Within the county, the residents who died from COVID-19 have all had other diseases or health conditions that contributed to their deaths, he added.

The cases reported by health officials within Cochise County include patients tested and treated at Canyon Vista Medical Center in Sierra Vista, according to Valerie Weller, the marketing and communication coordinator for the hospital.

The hospital enacted an emergency operations plan and holds daily meetings for Incident Command. In the past, the 100-bed hospital has responded to other infectious diseases including seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses.

“We have tested processes and plans in place to respond to situations involving infectious disease year-round,” Weller said in an email.

Following CDC guidelines, Canyon Vista Medical Center enforces the use of PPE by staff, issues masks for patients with respiratory symptoms, and has implemented a no visitor restriction, she said.

“These measures are in place to protect our facility and our community,” Weller said. “Please know that our providers and clinical teams are well-trained and prepared to manage outbreaks of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses.”

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