Utah hospitals again running out of room, as a more contagious coronavirus variant threatens more illness

Students’ return to classes also poses risk of worsening spread of COVID-19.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Brandon Webb, left, chair of Intermountain Healthcare’s COVID-19 Therapeutics team — pictured here in April 2020 — said on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, that Utah health experts are concerned about a new, more contagious variant of the coronavirus spreading across Utah.

Utah’s hospitals are once again stretched to the limit, with a post-holiday surge of coronavirus cases filling intensive care units to near-record levels.

“Our hospital is full,” Dr. Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health, said bluntly in an interview Tuesday.

And with a new, more contagious variant of the virus now confirmed in Utah, it’s possible hospital crowding will worsen.

“I think that’s top of mind. And it should be; it’s concerning,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare. “It’s a wake-up call that we need to be especially vigilant and effective in doing the things that we know work to very rapidly bring down the community transmission rates.”

The unusually large amount of genetic information in coronaviruses makes them especially prone to mutation, Webb said.

“Those mutations result in a change in the proteins of the virus that actually make the virus more able to cause infection, and those strains are what we’re now seeing now,” Webb said.

For example, he said, the dominant strain worldwide isn’t actually the strain that emerged from Wuhan, China; it’s one that developed in Europe late last spring.

And a newer strain, B.1.1.7, the so-called “U.K. variant,” was found in a Salt Lake County man who first tested positive last month. His sample was found to contain the mutation in later genetic sequencing, health officials announced last week.

Researchers have learned that the variant is about 50% more transmissible than the dominant strain so far — that is, each person who contracts the virus spreads it to 50% more people on average.

That means it could quickly become the most common variant of the virus in Utah if it isn’t contained. It had been found in 20 states as of Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

“More than ever before, we need to rapidly do everything we can to bring down the community transmission rates, because the fewer the cases, the less replication going on and the less chance these new variants will have to dominate,” Webb said.

While the new variant is not any likelier to cause serious illness or death, it likely will offset the “modest” reduction in new cases and community spread seen in the past few days, and will create a larger pool of people who could require hospital care, Webb said.

Not only that, but doctors are wary that as university students and schools in Salt Lake City resume classes, younger patients could generate a new surge like they did in the fall.

And there isn’t much room left in the hospitals.

Utah’s intensive care units were 89% full as of Tuesday and reached 97% of capacity a few days ago, approaching the record-high 99% that was reached in late December. Meanwhile, the state’s larger, “referral” hospitals were at 91% of capacity and had surpassed 100% a few days ago.

Hospital administrators have said those figures don’t account for staffing fluctuations or for rising pressure on specialists and equipment required by coronavirus patients specifically. COVID-19 now accounts for 43% of all ICU patients in Utah, and reached a record-high 45% a few days ago.

Since Jan. 5, Utah’s ICUs have been more than 85% full, which is the level where doctors have said overcrowding causes the quality of care to deteriorate.

“We’re bumping right up against the peak that we’ve seen for the pandemic,” Webb said. “We expect ... to have full hospital numbers through February and beyond. And I think that most of the health care workers that I work with every day have settled into the reality that that’s the case. They’re working hard, they’re doing their job. They’re providing great care ... but certainly there’s fatigue.”