Teresa Chavez

Teresa Chavez checks a ventilator in one of Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital's trauma rooms in July. SCVRH is suspending ICU services as of Monday.

Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital in Green Valley has temporarily closed its six-bed ICU wing, but the Pima County Health Department doesn't see it adversely affecting its coronavirus response.

CEO Stephen Harris said Monday that the closure was prompted because the hospital has been unable to hire a pulmonologist, a respiratory system specialist. A lack of pulmonologists is a national issue.

"Because of COVID, we've been unable to find, at any price, a pulmonologist, which is a critically important medical specialty to have if you're offering ICU services," he said.

The ICU closed at noon Monday, but Harris said the hospital plans to reopen it when the pandemic is over or if a pulmonologist becomes available.

On Monday, Pima County Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said she wasn't aware SCVRH decided to close the ICU. She said SCVRH's ICU beds acted primarily to hold patients 24 to 36 hours, with those needing more intensive care transferring to Tucson or other areas afterward. She said the county should be able to absorb losing the hospital's six ICU beds.

"Some of that is coupled with the fact that we've seen some loosening in our ICU beds," Cullen said. "Remember, there were many times before that we had no beds or low single digits. In the past couple of days, we've seen availability of around 10 to 14 beds. So, I think we'll be OK in the county."

Harris said SCVRH typically has one or two ICU patients, and it isn't a high-demand area.

In the meantime, the hospital will continue its other surgeries and services outside the ICU, including non-ICU admitted COVID-19 patients. Harris said no one would lose their job because of the closure.

SCVRH hasn't had a pulmonologist during the pandemic. Harris said although the hospital maintained the ICU during that time, the closing is due to the limited care the department could provide without a pulmonologist.

"Because we've had to keep the census very low, and we had to keep transferring patients anyway," he said. "Because once they were in the ICU, they really needed to be under the care of a pulmonologist. So, it's just gotten to the point where we don't think we're providing the right service to the community without a pulmonologist."

He said the ICU doesn't always require a pulmonologist, but many cases needs one on hand.

Despite suspending ICU service, Harris said it isn't due to financial issues, and he doesn't expect it to negatively impact future finances.

"The other problem is we haven't been able to attract enough ICU nurses because they're all being snapped up by the hospitals in Phoenix and Tucson," he said. "It's a continual problem."

Current ICU patients at SCVRH will continue to receive care until discharge despite suspending services.

The hospital plans to continue surgeries and should they, or any other patient, need ICU care, the hospital will stabilize them and transport them to another facility.

"The nurses will be reassigned. The hospital is doing fine financially," Harris said. "We've been trying to find a pulmonologist for a long, long time, and finally we just said, 'Hey, let's just, until the pandemic is over, let's just not offer that service. Because we can't do it the way we want to do it.'"

Jorge Encinas | 520-547-9732