As COVID cases fill Banner hospital beds, the Payson Town Council early this week continued to grapple with whether to open its meetings, require masks, or stick to Zoom meetings in a nearly empty council chamber.
The council minority argued that COVID’s here to stay and people have a right to attend public meetings without masks or vaccinations — and decide for themselves how much risk to run.
The council majority argued people can still attend to address the council — but that crowding people into the council chambers without masks or vaccinations endangers town staff, the council and residents.
For some, the argument now hinges on whether keeping council meetings closed helps the hospital, now at capacity with COVID patients.
Payson Fire Chief David Staub related a conversation he had with Banner Payson CEO Hoyt Skabelund.
“They are currently at six patients in the ICU (intensive care unit),” said Staub. “They are only licensed for four. They have 19 staff on the floor. The lion’s share are COVID patients. All of those patients are unvaccinated.”
Banner Payson cautioned that each day changes the situation, and they may expand the ICU capacity in emergency situations.
“Like many of our Banner Health hospitals in Arizona, Banner Payson Medical Center is extremely busy treating very sick COVID and non-COVID patients,” said Skabelund. He added, “The majority of our hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control statistics tracked on a University of Minnesota website earlier this week listed Banner Payson as nearly full. As of Jan. 4, Banner Payson had 88% of its total available beds filled. COVID patients accounted for 61% of that total.
The university’s statistics did not break out ICU versus hospital beds, however, Staub had a local example of the consequences, “We brought in a stroke patient to the hospital. He stayed in the ER for 48 hours until they got a bed in Colorado.”
For Skabelund, it’s clear what’s best to help the hospital.
“The community can do its part to help mitigate COVID by getting vaccinated and boosted if you have not already done so. Wear a mask in public indoor spaces and stay home if you’re feeling sick. Get tested if you believe you are experiencing COVID symptoms and seek medical care if you experience high fever, shortness of breath or other life-threatening symptoms,” he said.
Omicron now accounts for most new infections in the state, which as of Wednesday had seen a 129% increase in new cases as a daily average in the past two weeks.
Omicron spreads far more rapidly than Delta.
Cases this week in Arizona have jumped more than 129%, but states where Omicron has fully taken hold have seen increases of up to 700%.
Councilor Barbara Underwood said, “They have four ICU beds. Wow. What if you code and you can’t even get a bed?” she said. “We are trying to help our hospital to have room (if) someone in our community has an issue.”
She supported continuing the policy in place for the past 18 months, which broadcasts the meetings on a TV channel and Zoom — but limits public attendance. The policy gives the council the ability to socially distance in the front of the chambers, with the staff members sitting socially distanced in the space normally reserved for the public. People who want to address the council can still enter the chambers to take the microphone.
Some constituents have had enough of this. They’ve asked Mayor Tom Morrissey why other institutions, such as the Gila County Supervisors, open their meetings to the public.
“I am getting a lot of questions from constituents,” he said. “I need to be able to answer these questions.”
Staub, who heads the town’s COVID response effort, said that as part of his Jan. 4 presentation Payson had 155 active COVID cases — three times as many as Globe. The cases include a mix of Delta and Omicron strains. Payson has one of the state’s lowest vaccination rates — especially with the booster shots that provide strong protection against Omicron.
“That is actually our highest in at least a year,” said Staub.
But Morrissey, along with Councilors Jim Ferris and Suzy Tubbs-Avakian said social media posts have threatened to storm the council chambers if meetings remain remote.
“I want us to be aware it is becoming a major issue. It could become a problem,” said Morrissey.
The three council members advocate opening council meetings with no restrictions, including a mask mandate. Both Morrissey and Ferris have had COVID and now say they cannot wear masks without having trouble breathing.
Vice Mayor Chris Higgins also recovered from a serious bout with COVID.
Morrissey got sick before vaccines, Ferris and Higgins after. Ferris ended up in the hospital for an extended period, reported friends and family on social media. When Ferris returned to council meetings, he used supplemental oxygen.
Higgins missed a couple of meetings, but returned quickly. He did not weigh in on the discussion.
The remaining council members said they would consider re-opening meetings — but only if people wore masks.
The discussion revealed no middle ground that would make it possible to open the meetings — while observing public health guidelines.
Town Manager Troy Smith said that if the council decided to open the meetings, he would suggest town staff take part by Zoom connection.
Tubbs-Avakian — who attended on a Zoom connection — saw no problem with having the staff and council members Zoom into the meeting. “So, my concern is if we are trying to protect staff ... then those council and staff members that they have the ability to Zoom in, Zoom in — and let our constituents come to the meetings,” said Tubbs-Avakian.
Councilor Jolynn Schinstock turned that on its head to suggest that people unwilling to wear masks to protect others in the meeting should be the ones to Zoom into the meeting.
“That way we are in (the council chambers) we are on Channel 4 and notes can be taken,” she said.
The council ended up not voting on the issue — but had previously directed staff to find other venues so the maximum number of people can attend meetings, with social distancing.
Smith presented options, including the new courthouse and the new room at the library. However, he said the town could not broadcast the meetings on the cable channel. Some locations posed issues establishing a Zoom connection, said Smith.
“But all the options, they all exist,” he told the council.
Morrissey suggested the council vote on open meetings at the next regularly scheduled council meeting on Jan. 13. Smith said staff will have more meeting location options to present at that meeting.