‘Those are our realities’: Utah doctor disputes claims that ICU capacity is overblown

Utah reported another 1,749 cases and eight deaths from the coronavirus on Friday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) School nurse Karen Thelin tests a student for COVID-19 at American Preparatory Academy in Draper on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.

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A leading Utah doctor on Friday repeated warnings that intensive care units in the state are at capacity and pushed back against accusations that those alarms are overblown.

”There’s really no other numbers that are being hidden. Those are the facts,” said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare. “And if those are our realities, we have to deal with those realities.”

Another 1,749 Utahns tested positive for COVID-19 in the past day, and eight more have died of the coronavirus.

School-age children contracted one in four of all new cases, the Utah Department of Health announced — a total of 433. There were 198 cases in children aged 5 to 10; 81 cases in children 11 to 13; and 154 cases in children 14 to 18.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests stands at 1,574 per day.

According to the Utah Department of Health’s dashboard, 95.7% of the state’s ICU beds were occupied as of Friday. Among the state’s referral hospitals — the big facilities that channel most of the cases — the figure was at 97% capacity. Anything over 85% is considered practically full.

Vento reiterated that having an ICU bed available in a hospital doesn’t guarantee that staff is available to care for a patient in it.

”That bed can sit in a room, and if I don’t have a nurse, a respiratory tech, a physician, an advanced practice provider, I can’t take care of a patient. Therefore, that bed is worthless,” Vento said Friday during Intermountain’s weekly COVID-19 briefing over Facebook Live. “That patient who goes on that bed might as well be on the floor in the living room of their house, because no one’s going to take care of them.”

The health care system is overburdened, Vento said, after more than 18 months of battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are losing health care workers for being fatigued, being demoralized, being tired of doing 18 to 20 months of the same thing — and asking and begging and pleading for the same assistance from the community to try to help,” Vento said.

In an interim Utah Legislature meeting Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, accused Intermountain of overstating its ICU capacity problems.

”IHC says they’re out of space. They’re not out of space. They’re out of employees. They chased their doctors away. They chased their nurses away. They made it hell for their employees,” Ray said. “They got caught in the middle of a pandemic trying to change their business model to increase their billion-dollar bottom line so they can make more money. They got caught with their pants down.”

An Intermountain spokesman called Ray’s comments “not accurate” and noted that health care systems in Utah and across the country have been hit by the pandemic and the ongoing surge in cases caused by the delta variant.

Without mentioning Ray by name, Vento said criticisms of health care workers are “not being part of the solution, that’s being part of the problem.”

Vento asked Utahns to put themselves in the shoes of an ICU nurse. “You do seven shifts in a row,” Vento said. “Then someone says ‘Hey, can you cover on this shift because someone else is out?’ or ‘someone else had to quit because they were very stressed because of taking care of COVID.’ And then you go home, and you have someone on the news — or have your neighbor — say, ‘Oh, those numbers aren’t accurate. You guys aren’t really overwhelmed.’ You can imagine how demoralizing that is.”

Last week, Intermountain’s president and CEO, Dr. Marc Harrison, announced that the hospital system would be postponing “urgent… but not life-threatening” surgical procedures at 13 of its hospitals — because, as Vento put it Friday, “it would be unsafe for us to do that surgery if we can’t then recover the person in the ICU.”

The postponements started Wednesday, and in three days Intermountain has delayed or rescheduled about 130 surgeries, Vento said. In the meantime, health care workers are trying to compensate with telehealth sessions, remote patient monitoring, home visits by nurses and other ways to “do some hospital care at home,” he said.

“The goal would be to try to maybe do that for a couple of weeks, and see where we are,” Vento said.

Vento, who served in the U.S. Army for 26 years, compared fighting the COVID-19 pandemic to being in a combat zone.

“Our enemy as humans is the COVID virus. That’s our only enemy. There are no more enemies,” Vento said. “In a combat zone, if someone’s firing at you, you know to fire right back. We need to fire at COVID. We can’t fire at each other.”

Vento called on “leaders, individuals in the community, all citizens” to keep fighting the virus.

“We need everyone’s help,” he said.

In the past four weeks, unvaccinated Utahns were 5.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated people, according to a state Health Department analysis. The unvaccinated were also 6.8 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 6.2 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus.

An additional 3,573 Utahns were fully vaccinated in the past day, bringing the total to 1,642,717 — just over 50% of Utah’s total population.

Vaccine doses administered in past day / total doses administered • 6,422 / 3,372,714.

Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,642,717.

Cases reported in past day • 1,749.

Deaths reported in past day • Eight.

There were two deaths in Washington County — a man between the ages of 25-44 and a man 65-84.

One Salt Lake County resident died — a woman 85-plus. The other deaths were a Box Elder County man 45-64; an Iron County woman 65-84; a Uintah County man 45-64; a Utah County man 45-64; and a Wasatch County female 15-24.

Tests reported in past day • 12,033 people were tested for the first time. A total of 20,637 people were tested.

Hospitalizations reported in the past day • 592. That is 10 more than reported Thursday. Of those currently hospitalized, 225 are in intensive care, the same number reported Thursday.

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 14.5% over the past day. That’s higher than the seven-day average of 13.7%.

The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Thursday’s rate was 8.5%, lower than the seven-day average of 10.1%.

[Read more: Utah is changing how it measures the rate of positive COVID-19 tests. Here’s what that means.]

Totals to date • 490,985 cases; 2,787 deaths; 21,308 hospitalizations; 3,338,373 people tested.