WASHINGTON — Just weeks after the coronavirus overwhelmed hospitals in and around New York City, medical centers in Arizona, Florida, Texas and other states with skyrocketing infections are rapidly filling with sick patients, threatening state health care systems.
The swift increase has forced hospital leaders to begin bringing in extra staff, converting space into dedicated coronavirus units and, in some cases, moving sick patients hundreds of miles to get to available beds.
Surging numbers of patients with COVID-19 — though still shy of the wave that hit New York — also raise the prospect of new restrictions on nonessential medical care to free up beds for patients infected with virus.
"The numbers are definitely scary," said Judy Rich, chief executive of Tucson Medical Center, a hospital with more than 500 beds that serves patients from across southern Arizona. Tucson Medical Center has seen a threefold increase in COVID-19 patients since the beginning of June.
"When we started opening up the state, we immediately saw pictures of people packing into bars at night and celebrating," Rich said. "It feels like we did too much too fast, and now we are paying the price."
California, where infections are also soaring, is beginning to experience its own crush, with the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients surging 32% in the last two weeks, Gov. Gavin Newsom reported Thursday.
In Arizona, as of Wednesday, 88% of the Intensive Care Unit beds statewide were occupied, up from 68% in mid-May, according to state figures.
Banner Health, the state's largest hospital system, is already deploying its surge plan, including hiring 200 new contract nurses to handle the increased demand.
In Texas, state health officials recorded 4,739 hospitalized patients with COVID-19, more than double the number just 10 days ago.
The steep rise prompted Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has resisted placing restrictions on the state's residents, to issue an executive order Thursday suspending elective surgeries at hospitals in the state's largest counties, including those home to Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.
Abbott said the order was necessary "to help ensure that the hospitals in these counties continue to have ample supply of available beds to treat COVID-19 patients."
Florida, another emerging hot spot, is not reporting the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients. (Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ally of President Donald Trump, for months has tried to play down the severity of the pandemic.)
But Miami-Dade County — the state's largest, which is reporting hospitalization data — recorded a new high Thursday, with 885 infected patients in hospitals, up from 546 two weeks ago.
"The trend is not reassuring," said Kathleen Sposato, who oversees infection control at Jackson Health, the county's mammoth safety-net medical system. "We are very, very concerned."
The number of COVID-19 patients at Jackson Health has more than doubled since June 8.
The growing pressure on medical systems is not being felt everywhere.
In Jacksonville, Florida, Baptist Health, one of the largest medical systems in northern Florida, currently has only 24 COVID-19 patients, officials reported.
And Christus Health, a large system of Catholic medical centers across the South that includes 30 hospitals in Texas, isn't nearing capacity, said Dr. Sam Bagchi, the system's chief medical officer.
Bagchi compared the current demand at Christus hospitals to a busy flu season. "There are yellow flags, but the red ones aren't there," he said.
Even at more stressed systems like Tucson Medical Center, hospital officials noted that they are seeing younger, healthier patients with COVID-19 now, compared to earlier this year, which has made caring for them easier.
Advances in treatments, including the use of drugs such as remdesevir and dexamethasone, have also eased some of the burdens that hospitals experienced when the crisis first struck earlier this year.
But health officials cautioned that the rapid spread of infection in places including Texas, Florida, Arizona and California means that even systems that have so far been spared are likely not safe.
"We can see the storm coming," said John Henderson, who heads Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.
Henderson noted that several member hospitals in suburban and rural areas around Houston are already being called on to take very ill patients from overburdened medical centers in the city, which is experiencing among the worst coronavirus outbreaks.
In California, hospitals as far north as Sacramento are taking COVID-19 patients from hospitals in Imperial and San Diego counties, which have been overwhelmed with expatriates coming home from Mexico for treatment.
Carmela Coyle, chief executive of the California Hospital Association, said officials expect more patient transfers will become necessary as demand increases across the state. "Our sense is that we are a week to 10 days out," she said.
Coyle said the hospital group is working with state officials on a surge plan to meet the anticipated increase in COVID-19 patients. One goal is to prevent the need for the kind of shutdowns that earlier this spring sharply limited medical services for patients who were not infected.
But she and others also stressed that public engagement in preventing further spread of the virus will be critical to preserving access to hospitals.
"This is a community problem," said Sposato, the Miami hospital official. "There needs to be a lot more community participation in this effort."