Utah hospitals delay nonessential medical treatments in preparation for coronavirus surge

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) A negative pressure tent is shown outside the University of Utah's hospital, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The hospital is taking steps to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, including new visitor policies and the construction of outdoor negative pressure tents where people can be tested without having to go inside the hospital building. Officials with Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health Services said Monday they would temporarily delay all nonessential surgeries, doctor appointments and other medical services in an attempt to free up resources for an impending surge in coronavirus cases.

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Utah’s two largest health care providers said Monday they would temporarily delay all nonessential surgeries, doctor appointments and other medical services in an attempt to free up resources for an impending surge in coronavirus cases.

Officials with Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health Services said the postponements would start immediately as an emergency step to ensure an adequate number of hospital beds, doctors, nurses and medical supplies would be on hand as the virus advances in Utah.

“We believe this is the right thing to do for our community,” physician Sam Finlayson, professor and chair of the U.’s Department of Surgery, said at a news conference Monday. “I don't think we can overstate the danger of the epidemic.”

The announcement came as additional COVID-19 cases detected in Summit County on Monday pushed Utah’s total number of cases so far past 41 amid confirmation of the virus’s spread within the community.

Finlayson and others said the delays were also key in promoting social distancing and limiting contact between potentially infected patients and other patients and caregivers at area health care facilities. The step, they said, was in line with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control on further slowing the spread of the virus, while also reflecting crucial lessons from other countries hit by COVID-19.

“This is about keeping our patients and caregivers safe as the novel coronavirus enters our community,” said physician Mark Briesacher, senior vice president and chief physician executive with Intermountain Healthcare.

Patients with urgent needs and time-sensitive medical conditions such as cancer will continue to get the treatments they need, officials said, while health workers begin contacting non-urgent patients on rescheduling appointments and procedures in consultation with their doctors.

Postponements of nonessential care will remain in place at least until there are signs the number of coronavirus cases in the state has begun to plateau, Finlayson said.

“I don’t think that this is going to pass quickly,” he said. “This is going to be a matter of weeks and possibly months."

Officials, in particular, are viewing Italy — currently near the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe — as something of a model for the pace at which the disease could spread in the U.S., said Finlayson.

“We’re about 10 or 11 days behind Italy,” he said. “And Italy’s health care system has been overwhelmed by the virus, so I don’t think by any means are we premature in taking these measures.”

Briesacher added that delays in nonessential care were part of a broader effort “to minimize the peak of this curve and to spread things out over time so that we do not unduly stress the health care resources that we have.”

Hospitals have yet to see any spike in COVID-19 patients, but were taking the postponement step as a preemptive move. Hospitals in other states have adopted a similar approach, they noted.

Briesacher said doctors would “be very judicious as we make these decisions” as to what treatments may be delayed.

“While this change may create challenging situations for some people,” Briesacher said, “it is a necessary and appropriate step given the anticipated growth in the number of Utahns who may need hospitalization from COVID-19.”

Thanks to weeks of advance planning with suppliers, officials with both hospital systems said, inventories of crucial medical supplies and personal protective equipment on hand at Utah hospitals and clinics are adequate.

“We’re in good shape right now,” said Finlayson. But with no indication as yet as to just how large the state’s number of virus patients might be, he said, “the future is much more uncertain.”

Briesacher said Utah health providers continue to have limited access to coronavirus testing kits “just like every other place in the country.”

Increased testing supplies have come online this week, Briesacher said, but they are still limited and area hospitals are following protocols, he said, for assuring that “patients who have the greatest needs can get that test.”

Finlayson added that reagents and other items used in conjunction with COVID-19 tests were also in high demand.

Officials with a Salt Lake City-based biomedical company called Co-Diagnostics said Monday the firm had developed a test for the virus in early January and received clearance from top European regulators on its use.

But expedited approval for the test from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still forthcoming, said Seth Egan, the company’s international head of sales.

The small publicly traded company is capable of manufacturing 50,000 tests per day at its Utah facilities, at a cost of $10 per test, and already ships testing kits to Italy, Turkey, England and Australia, Egan said.

“We could supply all of the testing needs in Utah and greater areas around us easily,” he told a group of tech leaders in a Monday conference call about the virus. “We sit here a little amazed that we have a test that is available in European nations but we can’t sell it as a clinical diagnostic in our own home state.”

An official with Silicon Slopes, representing more than 6,000 Utah technology companies, said the group would make financial backing and support available if needed in the coming days to help secure that emergency FDA approval.

The industry group is also preparing to subsidize testing costs to patients, officials said, and to have volunteers help transport those supplies around the state, if they are approved and made available.