Some surgeries are being delayed and patients are being transferred around the state as Utah’s intensive care units fill up amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
“There’s full and then there’s beyond full,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, a physician for Intermountain Healthcare. Volumes in the health care system are “beyond 100%,” Webb said.
“In many case we are lacking those emergency beds and we are unable to provide that immediate care in the same way,” Webb said.
That means the hospitals are once again delaying some surgeries, especially those that are high risk and may require ICU care in the event of complications, Webb said.
According to the Utah Department of Health, as of Thursday there were 467 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and 184 of those were in intensive care — the highest numbers since January.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests rose to 1,176 per day — the highest that number has been since Feb. 5. Another 1,286 Utahns tested positive for COVID-19 in the past day, and 250 of them — about 1 in 5 — were school-age children.
Eight more Utahns died of the coronavirus in the past day. Half of them were under the age of 65, and one was under the age of 45.
The ICUs in Utah’s large “referral” hospitals were at 91% on Thursday, exceeding the 85% threshold where ICUs still are able to guarantee admission to emergency patients, Webb said.
That doesn’t mean patients are being turned away, he said. But they are being transferred to other hospitals around the state, said Jess Gomez, Intermountain spokesman — for example, from St. George all the way to Salt Lake County.
“That’s happening a lot more due to capacity,” Gomez said.
Some lung and brain surgeries — at least those unrelated to cancer — are being postponed, especially if there are other treatments that can tide the patient over until beds are more available, said Dr. Rob Ferguson, senior medical director over surgical operations at Intermountain.
Meanwhile, non-ICU beds also are running low, so patients who need lower-risk procedures are being prioritized depending on how urgent the operation is and whether there are other options.
“Unfortunately, there are some back spine procedures, some reconstruction type of procedures, total joint procedures, in all of our specialties — spine, orthopedic, plastic surgery, [ear nose throat] — all of them have different types of procedures they’re having to postpone for another day,” Ferguson said.
Doctors also are evaluating patients who normally would need to be admitted after procedures, to determine whether they are low risk enough to “qualify for going home the same day,” Ferguson said.
The problem isn’t just COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals, Webb said. That was the case last winter, when coronavirus patients comprised upwards of 30% of ICU patients — an “unheard of” percentage patients made critically ill by a single cause, doctors said at the time.
Now there are different issues at play, Webb said. First, the hospitals have fewer doctors and nurses than they did last year, which means capacity is lower.
“We might have physical space, but we don’t have personnel like we did last winter,” Webb said. “The difference this year is that we are severely understaffed — nursing in particular, but also other health care workers” such as respiratory therapists and other specialists.
Those workers were “significantly impacted by the toll that caring for COVID patients has taken,” Webb said. “We’ve lost a lot who have actually retired from health care.”
Meanwhile, there are more non-coronavirus patients in ICUs this year than there were last year, Webb said. There are more trauma patients in particular, Gomez said.
Last summer, Gomez said, “people weren’t out and about the way they usually are” because they were delaying travel and recreation plans in order to protect themselves from COVID-19.
Now people have resumed the activities that normally make summer a busy season in hospitals — and that means there is less room for coronavirus patients.
Finally, there are a lot of patients who didn’t get symptoms checked out last year because they were trying to avoid doctor’s offices due to the coronavirus, Ferguson said. As those patients make their way back to their doctors, it’s creating a rush of diagnoses that in previous years would have been more spread out.
“Patients were putting up with things they normally would have seen their provider for,” Ferguson said. “Patients have, for example, held off on going to the doctor for abdominal pains, and they’re finding out they need something with their gall bladder. Or they were postponing screening colonoscopies or mammograms and finding out they need a procedure.”
The total number of Utahns hospitalized with the coronavirus since the pandemic began has now topped 20,000.
Vaccine doses administered in past day/total doses administered • 7,881 / 3,229,046.
Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,564,511, or 47.8% of Utah’s total population.
Cases reported in past day • 1,176. That includes 110 children ages 5 to 10; 62 children 11 to 13; and 78 children 14 to 18.
Deaths reported in past day • Eight. There were three deaths in Utah County — a man between the ages of 25 and 44, a man 45 to 64, and a woman 65 to 84.
Salt Lake County reported two deaths — a woman 45 to 64 and a man 65 to 84. The other deaths were a Davis County man 45 to 64, a Wasatch County woman 65 to 84, and a Weber County man 65-84.
In the past four weeks, unvaccinated Utahns were five times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated people, according to a UDOH analysis. The unvaccinated were also 6.2 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 4.9 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus.
Tests reported in past day • 8,953 people were tested for the first time. A total of 15,634 people were tested.
Hospitalizations reported in the past day • 463. That’s eight fewer than on Wednesday. Of those currently hospitalized, 185 are in intensive care, four fewer than on Wednesday.
Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 13.1%. That’s lower than the seven-day average of 15.4%.
The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Wednesday’s rate was 7.5%, lower than the seven-day average of 10.8%.
Totals to date • 459,875 cases; 2,623 deaths; 20,006 hospitalizations; 3,106,951 people tested.