Rise in respiratory illnesses sparks long emergency room wait times statewide

PHOENIX — Public health officers and healthcare leaders across Arizona are sounding the alarm for public action in the face of a concerning and continued rise in viral infection. The call from the Arizona Local Health Officers Association (ALHOA) and hospital leaders, including those at Northern Arizona Healthcare, comes as Arizona is recording the highest number of flu cases ever recorded at this point in the flu season.

Today’s joint announcement comes from chief medical officers and leading clinicians covering Arizona acute care hospitals in rural and urban communities. In addition, local health officers from all 15 counties in the state are also joining in the effort to reduce the spread of illness.

Emergency departments are experiencing lengthy wait times as flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 spread rapidly throughout our communities.

“We are seeing more cases of RSV, influenza and COVID this winter than we have in the last few years, and the numbers are rising,” said Michael White, M.D., chief clinical officer, Valleywise Health. “Our emergency department is reporting seeing 30-40% more patients than they typically do during this time of the year, with about half these patients arriving with some type of respiratory concern. We anticipate these numbers will only increase in the coming months.”

While mild to moderate cases of flu and other respiratory illnesses can be very uncomfortable, many people can get testing and treatment at medical providers other than emergency rooms. Patients can get appropriate care for mild to moderate respiratory illnesses through:

  • Primary care providers/community health centers
  • Telemedicine or telehealth appointments
  • Urgent care

“As we look toward holiday gatherings, we need to take personal action to prevent additional spread of viral infection and ensure that those with true medical emergencies continue to get timely care,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director, Pima County Health Department and member of ALHOA. “We typically see increased illness after the holidays, and we need everyone’s help to minimize spread that leads to additional strain on our healthcare systems.”

Public health officials say there are things everyone in the community can do as individuals and through their other roles in the community to slow the spread and enjoy this holiday season.


  • Get vaccinated and recognize the signs of respiratory illness
    • There is no vaccine for RSV, but flu and COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness leading to hospitalization and death
  • Stay home when sick with fever or respiratory symptoms
  • Wear a mask around others to protect yourself and others
  • Wash your hands with warm soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • If you have a medical condition that places you at greater risk for severe illness, please seek care early
  • For mild and moderate illness, seek care from a care provider other than an emergency room
  • Seek emergency care for:
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Inability to take in liquids
    • Confusion or difficulty waking up


  • Remind families to keep their kids home if they have fever or other signs of illness
  • Remind kids to wash their hands properly and frequently, and help younger children wash their hands properly
  • Have tissues, trash cans to dispose of tissues, and hand sanitizer easily accessible


  • Remind your employees what resources are available to prevent spread and treat illness, such as insurance benefits like free vaccines, telehealth visits, and nurse lines; and remote work or other options to prevent spread among staff
  • Allow employees to take time off if they are ill or need to take care of someone who is ill

Faith-based and community-based organizations:

  • Provide virtual options for sermons, meetings, prayers, classes and other services so people who are ill or taking care of ill family members can participate without exposing others
  • Set up a way to help those who need more support, such as providing meals or supplies like thermometers, over-the-counter medicine, and hand sanitizer

“You don’t have to look very hard to find a connection in your household or extended family who has dealt with a flu, RSV or a COVID-19 infection recently,” says Brian Tiffany, chief physician executive for the Dignity Health Southwest Division. “We have the power to limit the spread of further infection to our loved ones by practicing simple and effective infection control recommendations.”

Arizona Local Health Officers Association (ALHOA) is a collaborative of local public health officers representing all 15 counties throughout Arizona.

The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association (AzHHA), as the administrator of the Arizona Coalition of Healthcare Emergency Response (AzCHER), recently convened Arizona Chief Medical Officers and clinician leaders to discuss the current state of medical surge. Medical experts included in today’s announcement include Dignity Health, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Northern Arizona Healthcare and AzHHA member hospitals.