Utah’s ICUs past capacity as COVID patients surge in numbers

Intensive care units are 102% full, medical units are at 98%, and caregivers are stretched thin.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Intermountain LDS Hospital, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Intermountain Health Care released information Friday that intensive care units are 102% full, medical units are at 98%, and caregivers are stretched thin.

Intensive care units at Utah hospitals are overcapacity — as of Thursday, they were 102% full. And medical staffs are stressed to the breaking point.

“I haven’t seen morale this low in a hospital in, in … well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this low, period,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare in Murray. “Our caregivers are really strained. … We’re in a pretty dire strait right now.”

“Optimal capacity” of ICUs is 80% to 85%, “so you’ve got that offer to temporarily go up to 90-90%,” Stenehjem said. “We’re obviously well over those at this point.”

And the medical surgical floors, at 98% capacity, are close behind the ICUs.

“So we’re full. Completely full. This is not a place that we want to be,” Stenehjem said. And that means hospitals have to “figure something out” when a trauma patient or someone who’s suffered a heart attack or a stroke comes in and needs an ICU bed.

“What ends up happening,” Stenehjem said, “is that you take care of sicker patients than you really should be on a general medical surgical floor.”

He also worries that “all those people enjoying the great outdoors in Utah” this summer who suffer injuries will end up “hitting our hospital and not having the resources or the space that they need.” And all of this is “really taxing and stressful on our caregivers.”

“Part of it is that we don’t have the workforce to give people breaks. We’re asking them to work more shifts now. We don’t have a whole stable of redeployed caregivers, and so it is incredibly taxing on our caregivers.”

Stenehjem said the current surge in patients “has taken such an emotional toll” on ICU doctors and nurses, who are “now seeing patients come into the hospital that are suffering where they didn’t need to.”

About 90% of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized were not vaccinated, “and they could’ve been vaccinated. And if they were vaccinated, the vast majority of these hospitalizations would have been avoided.”

The majority of vaccinated patients admitted with COVID “are people that we’d expect didn’t generate a significant immune response to the vaccine,” Stenehjem said. They may be immunocompromised because they’ve had a transplant or they’re taking certain medications or they have “significant comorbid illnesses.”

However, most of those patients are not in the ICU. “And the majority of them have done well,” Stenehjem said. “They get admitted, and they go home.”

He said he’s “just kind of numb to it all, at this point. We’ve been in this fight now for over 18 months, and we all kind of thought that we’ve got this effective vaccine that’s safe. And I think I had it in my mind that everybody’s going to get it that can get it, and we won’t be in this situation.”

But now caregivers are thinking that “COVID is here to stay. And unless we can get our community fully vaccinated, we’re going to be dealing with this for the indefinite future. … I mean, we’re back in the throes of this.”

Hospitals are back where they were in November and December of 2020, and “the one thing everybody can do to lessen the load on our hospitals and on our caregivers and on our communities” is get vaccinated.

It’s also “imperative” that Utahns start wearing masks again, wash their hands and limit indoor gatherings.

“We really need to get this under control before we get into that winter season,” Stenehjem said. “We know what happens in the winter and holidays. And we just aren’t going to be able to sustain the stress on our health care environment that long.”