‘The cavalry’s not coming’: Intermountain Healthcare will postpone ‘urgent’ surgeries as COVID-19 cases fill ICU beds

These ‘are not minor procedures,’ the hospital system’s CEO said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare — seen here at Gov. Spencer Cox's COVID-19 briefing on Aug. 31, 2021 — announced on Sept. 10, 2021, that 13 of his system's hospitals will postpone "urgent but not life-threatening" surgical procedures, because of the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Noting that its intensive care units are above 100% capacity because of a surge in COVID-19 cases, the head of Utah’s largest hospital system said it will start postponing “urgent but not immediately life-threatening” surgeries at 13 Utah hospitals.

“We’ve done everything we can think of to maintain normal quality of care,” Dr. Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, said Friday in a virtual news conference. “And it’s not enough.”

The number of procedures that will be delayed from Logan to St. George, starting Wednesday and continuing for at least a couple of weeks, will be in the hundreds, Harrison said.

These “are not minor procedures that are trivial, that are purely elective,” he said, adding that people will have to live with pain and uncertainty longer than they otherwise would have because of the delays.

“The pause in surgery is going to be a challenge — for you, your family, your friends,” Harrison said. “It’s going to make people unhappy, and it’s going to make people scared, and in some cases it’s going to make people miserable.”

Intermountain’s hospitals are treating about 350 COVID-19 patients, as of Friday, Harrison said — and about half of the system’s ICU beds “are taken up by COVID patients.” Statewide, there are 529 people hospitalized with COVID-19, state health officials reported Friday.

He cited projections that conditions will get worse. “We believe we’re going to need about 40 more ICU beds and about 70 more general medical beds in the very near future,” Harrison said. “And guess what? We just don’t have them. … The cavalry’s not coming. We are the cavalry, and when I say ‘we,’ I mean the community as a whole.”

The delays in surgeries will affect these 13 hospitals: Logan Regional Hospital; McKay-Dee Hospital, Ogden; Layton Hospital; LDS Hospital, Salt Lake City; Intermountain Medical Center, Murray; Park City Hospital; Riverton Hospital; Alta View Hospital, Sandy; American Fork Hospital; Utah Valley Hospital, Provo; Spanish Fork Hospital; Cedar City Hospital; St. George Regional Hospital.

Harrison, who has been treated for multiple myeloma that is in remission, said, “this has rapidly become a pandemic of the medically frail — people like me, people with immunodeficiency — and the unvaccinated.”

About 87% of COVID-19 patients in Intermountain’s system are unvaccinated, Harrison said. They tend to be 20 years younger than vaccinated patients, and less likely to have other underlying conditions, he said.

Responding to President Joe Biden’s statement on Thursday that “our patience is wearing thin” with people who remain unvaccinated, Harrison offered his own opinion: “I am not impatient with the individual who has chosen not to get the vaccine. I’m impatient with the situation. My hope is that as people understand, that they will choose — as Utahns have for so long — to be part of the solution and to help their neighbors.”

Harrison cited the case of a man who came into one of Intermountain’s referral hospitals recently, so sick that the emergency department doctors wanted to have him admitted. “He denied he actually had COVID, denied that it was even a problem,” Harrison said. “He came back several hours later, in arrest, and died.”

He urged people who are unvaccinated to “look in your hearts. What do you see your role being in ending this pandemic, and allowing your neighbors to get the health care they need? I hope they’ll come to positive answers. And please, please, if you choose not to get vaccinated, you need to be extraordinarily careful. You need to isolate yourself. You need to wear a mask. We don’t want you to be be another person whose life is ruined or ended by an unnecessary COVID infection.”

Harrison said delays in surgeries will not be ordered at Intermountain’s rural hospitals, The Orthopedic Surgical Hospital or Primary Children’s Hospital — though some cases may be postponed as needed, depending on individual circumstances.

Intermountain still will not require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Harrison said. He noted that the company’s vaccination rate is “north of 80%… and getting better every day. We believe in people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. And they are generally making what I would be consider to be very, very good decisions.”