COVID-19 patients are filling Utah’s ICU beds, new data shows, as state reports 23 more deaths

The state’s rate of new cases is declining, with 2,574 new diagnoses reported Wednesday.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christy Danielson tests patients for Covid-19 at the Intermountain Healthcare Cottonwood InstaCare on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020.

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New data released this week shows just how crowded each of Utah’s hospitals are becoming during the COVID-19 pandemic — with many of them counting their open ICU beds in single digits.

In fact, at the go-to hospitals for some regions of the state, a single car wreck could fill all remaining intensive care beds, according to new data on beds and occupancy that federal officials released Monday for 48 Utah hospitals.

For example, at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, which reported having about 32 staffed ICU beds for adults, all but 2.5 of them were in use, on average, on any day last week.

McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden reported being over its ICU capacity by about six patients each day — while the neighboring Ogden Regional Medical Center only had, on average, three of its 14 staffed ICU beds available on any day last week.

Meanwhile, the ICUs at hospitals in Tooele and Draper were completely full for most days during the week of Nov. 27 to Dec. 3, according to the data in the report.

And of the 15 large “referral” hospitals that are caring for most of Utah’s coronavirus patients, eight reported averaging fewer than five available and staffed ICU beds for adults each day last week, according to the data, provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The detailed hospital findings came as Utah reported more than 20 fatalities due to the coronavirus for a second day in a row, even while the state’s rate of new diagnoses declined slightly.

The Utah Department of Health reported 2,574 new coronavirus cases, with a seven-day average of 2,892 new positive test results per day — below Tuesday’s rate of 3,101, but above last week’s rate of about 2,600.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 995 Wednesday, including 23 new fatalities, marking the end of the virus’ deadliest 30-day stretch in the state:

  • A Utah County male, age 15 to 24, only the state’s fifth death in this age range.

  • A Salt Lake County man, age 25 to 44.

  • Four more Salt Lake County men, one age 45 to 64, and three ages 65 to 84.

  • Two Salt Lake County women, ages 65 to 84.

  • Three Washington County women, ages 65 to 84.

  • A Box Elder County woman, age 45 to 64.

  • A Davis County man, age 45 to 64.

  • A Juab County man, age 65 to 84.

  • Two Iron County men, ages 65 to 84.

  • A Weber County man, age 65 to 84.

  • A Piute County man older than 85.

  • A Box Elder County woman older than 85.

  • A Cache County woman older than 85.

  • A Davis County man older than 85.

Hospitalizations held steady Wednesday, with 581 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 589 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — a record high. In total, 9,105 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, with more than 1,150 in the past two weeks.

As of Wednesday, there were a record 223 coronavirus patients in Utah’s intensive care units, which have been, on average, 88% full for the past week, according to UDOH data. At the state’s larger “referral” hospitals, ICUs have been 92% full for the past week.

ICU occupancy rates statewide and at referral hospitals both are at record-high levels — and doctors have said those figures don’t reflect staffing fluctuations, or the rising demand for certain equipment and specialists needed by COVID-19 patients in particular. Coronavirus infections now accounts for more than 40% of all ICU admissions statewide — a figure that has doubled since late October.

For months, hospitals have reported extensive “load leveling” — transferring patients from the most crowded hospitals to the least crowded — in order to prevent ICUs from overflowing. And some hospitals still reported having more open ICU beds than others.

But hospital administrators say the new federal data appears to be overcounting available beds.

For example, the federal data shows the University of Utah’s ICU beds only about half full. But that’s because it reports 176 ICU beds, using a March estimate the hospital provided, assuming an absolute-worst-case scenario in which nearly all surgical staff and facilities, recovery rooms and even operating rooms would be repurposed for intensive care, said Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at the U.

“Our normal, staffed bed count is 111,” Vinik said.

Meanwhile, the 22 Intermountain Healthcare hospitals on the report show a combined ICU occupancy of about 85%, noted Intermountain spokesman Jess Gomez. But that also appears to reflect a months-old count of physical beds, and hasn’t been adjusted for staffing shortfalls as hundreds of nurses and doctors statewide have either fallen ill, been forced to quarantine, or are taking care of family members, Gomez said.

“If you look at the reality of it, in terms of staff bed capacity we’re actually at the 92 to 93% occupancy range,” Gomez said.

The data also may be skewed by the federal requirement that hospitals report patient counts at midnight each day — an hour when patient counts typically are the lowest.

“It’s not absolutely accurate,” Gomez said. “If anything, it appears to be underreporting volumes right now.

Providers and health systems are working with HHS to improve the accuracy and to help provide “a pretty accurate snapshot,” Gomez said. “We’re not quite there yet.”

For the past week, 26.6% of all Utah tests for the coronavirus have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said.

There were 11,182 new test results reported Wednesday, below the weeklong average of about 13,700 new tests per day.

Per-capita rates of new cases again were far higher in Sanpete and Wasatch counties than in the rest of the state. In Sanpete County, about 1 in 53 residents had tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks — meaning their cases are considered “active.” That figure rises to 1 in 45 within the towns of the Sanpete Valley.

In Wasatch County, more than 1 in 58 residents were diagnosed with active cases, with rates of more than 1 in 75 in Washington and Utah counties.

But many more counties include communities with rates at least that high. According to the state’s “small area” data, about 1.1 million Utahns live in neighborhoods and cities where more than 1 in every 75 residents has an active infection.

Along with the Sanpete Valley and Wasatch County, ten other communities reported active infections in more than 1 in 65 residents: northern Orem; rural San Juan County; Spanish Fork; Herriman; Eagle Mountain and the Cedar Valley; St. George; Santa Clara and Ivins; Draper; Orem; and Hyrum.