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Utah doctors report increasing COVID-19 cases, strained ICUs, staff leaving

University of Utah Health workers treat patients inside the medical intensive care unit at University of Utah Hospital on Friday, July 30, 2021. Photo credit: Charlie Ehlert, University of Utah Health Care

SALT LAKE CITY — Doctors in Utah say they’re seeing as many COVID-19 patients as they did during the height of the pandemic.  But they have less capacity to treat them.  They also say Utah does not seem to be following the national trend which shows new cases dropping by more than 30%.

“The majority of that decline is in the southeast, ” said Chief Medical Operations Officer for University of Utah Health, Dr. Russell Vinik.  “As you move further west to states like Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, the story isn’t as promising.” 

Vinik said within their own healthcare system, they’ve seen a gradual increase in the number of new cases,  And that typically shows in state data within a week or two. 

ICU Strain

Vitnik said on average, there are about 600 COVID patients in Utah hospitals.  He said  about 230 of those people are in intensive care units.  At the University of Utah, he said about one-third of their ICU beds are filled by COVID patients. 

But at rural hospitals, COVID-19 patients are filling about half of the beds. That’s putting new strains on an already stressed system.   

“Smaller communities are suffering,” said Dr. Elizabeth Middleton, an Assistant professor of medicine, and Associate Director of Medical Intensive care at University of Utah Health.   

“There are delays in patients coming to us, and they become sicker in that period of time,” said Middleton.  “So our ability to intervene within a short, early window, is significantly limited.”  Middleton said they’re only seeing the sickest of patients, and that puts a bigger strain on patients and caretakers alike. 

She said at U. Med. they’re typically treating 30 or more COVID-19 patients in a unit designed for 25.

Fewer caregivers

“We don’t have nearly the staff to take care of these patients as we did back in December of last year,” said Vinik. 

He said there are several reasons why.  First, last year, they were able to draw staff from other departments that were less busy at the time.  Second, more workers are quitting. 

“People are leaving the workforce. And that’s not just in healthcare, but it’s very pronounced in healthcare,” Vinik said. 

The third reason is hospitals, that receive federal dollars for staffing, are now competing with contract nurses and other staffing. 

“And so we see some hospitals  offering signing bonuses for $20,000 and paying $300 an hour for nursing.” He said that creates a significant incentive for people to leave, and go to other states and hospitals.

Ripple effect

The staff at U. Med is doing their best to treat all patients, but Vinik said there have been some delays.  For example, he said people have had to wait up to 12 or 24 hours in some cases for COVID-19 patients to get a bed.  And, as a regional hospital, he said  U. Med accepts patients from Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada. 

At the same time, Vinik said they don’t want anybody to put off critical care. “Please, please come to the hospital,” Vinik said. “We will take care of you.  We will take care of everybody.”  He said there should never be a question of people being turned away.

However, for elective procedures, Vinik said they have to decide on a daily basis how many beds they can use.  He said they make those decisions about 48-hours out.  

Holiday worries 

As winter and the holidays approach, U. Med is urging more people to get vaccinated. 

“This is a preventable disease,” said Middleton.  She said the vast majority of seriously ill patients in her ICU are not vaccinated with some telling her they were more afraid of the vaccine than they were of COVID-19. 

“I wish there was a way to break through and show them that the possible injury caused by COVID is so much worse,” she said. “I have not taken care of one patient who’s had a complication from the vaccine,” Middleton said.  “But there have been lots and lots of COVID patients.  I’ve seen terrible things because of that.”


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