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Utah might have enough ventilators to treat patients during the looming spike of COVID-19 cases, but it needs millions of special masks and gowns, the new leader of the state’s coronavirus response said Friday.
One of the most critical needs is N95 masks, which health care workers wear to minimize their exposure to sick patients.
Jeff Burton, who heads the coronavirus response at the Utah Department of Health, said Friday that the state will need 3.7 million of these masks over the next three months.
It has placed an order for 3 million to close its deficit.
Burton’s list wasn’t done. Utah will need 4.8 million medical gowns and has received 62,000. The state also will need 2.2 million face shields and has received 76,000.
Some of the needed supplies are arriving gradually.
“We are distributing daily as quickly as we can," Burton said, "to those facilities that need them.”
It’s the first time anyone in Utah government has been so candid about what the state has and needs. There have been hints, however, at coming problems.
State leaders have been asking professionals like dentists, optometrists, even construction workers to donate medical-grade supplies through a website called coronavirus.utah.gov/help. Earlier this week, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox asked capable manufacturers in Utah to go to the site to learn how to make a breathing apparatus for health care workers to wear.
Burton did offer some encouraging news.
He revealed Utah has a bit fewer than 959 ventilators capable of treating COVID-19 patients. A model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says Utah will need 221 ventilators when the peak arrives.
The coronavirus is a respiratory illness. In severe cases or when older adults or those with underlying health conditions contract COVID-19, they cannot breathe enough oxygen on their own and require a ventilator.
The numbers of ventilators and personal protection equipment have been missing variables in determining Utah’s preparation for the coming coronavirus onslaught, expected to arrive in the state during the third or fourth week of this month. As recently as last week, the Utah Department of Health said it didn’t have a ventilator count for Utah.
On Friday, the state reported 1,246 COVID-19 cases. The death toll remained at seven, and 106 people have been hospitalized.
Burton didn’t specify where the state has placed its order for the protective gear. The federal government has a stockpile it is distributing to states, and the White House has been asking private industry to make more items like masks and gowns. Some overseas manufactures are selling equipment, too.
There’s great demand for the protective gear. Health care workers in some countries and states already have run out of their supplies.
Jill Michaelson, an assistant professor of nursing at Westminster College who on Friday was working a nursing supervisor shift at Murray’s Intermountain Medical Center, said Utah has enough equipment — for now.
She worries members of the public will continue to buy the gear to protect themselves as they go to supermarkets or other mild-risk places, leaving fewer products available for health care workers.
“We all want to do our jobs,” Michaelson said, “but we don’t want to take anything home to our families.”
Burton also said Friday that Utah has 600 beds in intensive care units. About half those are already filled, mostly with patients who have not contracted COVID-19. The same modeling that predicted the need for ventilators predicts Utah will need 276 ICU beds for coronavirus patients.
Previous models predicted a harsher coronavirus peak in Utah and said the state would need more than 700 ICU beds.
Burton, who recently retired as adjutant general of the Utah National Guard and was appointed Tuesday by Gov. Gary Herbert to take over the coronavirus response at the Utah Department of Health, did not say where the ventilators or ICU beds are. That’s an important issue as coronavirus clusters develop and some hospitals need more equipment and space than others.
Later Friday, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said the ventilators currently reside at hospitals and clinics, though a plan was being developed to redistribute them to facilities that need more.
Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson said state officials have set up an “alternative hospital” — he did not say where — that could be used to treat patients if traditional hospitals become overcrowded while caring for coronavirus patients.
The alternative center would not be for those who have the virus but for backup in case others needed medical care and the hospitals filled up with COVID-19 patients — or if there were an episode with mass injuries or fatalities.
“The COVID-19 patients would remain in our main hospitals where proper care and attention can [be given] to them,” he said, “especially knowing how vulnerable people are with the spread of this particular virus.”
There are 250 beds in the alternate center, Anderson said, and it has the capacity to fit another 750 beds — if needed.
“We hope," he said, “that we will never have to use our alternative care sites.”
Anderson said state officials are asking Utahns who are trained medical professionals and could help in the overflow facility to go to the state’s website and let officials know what training they have and when they could help.
He also said that state officials are working to find quarantine and isolation sites for people who are experiencing homelessness or have “compromised” homes where isolation isn’t possible. He did not detail where these sites are located.
— Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this story.