Surgeries delayed with 500 University of Utah Hospital staff out sick amid COVID outbreak

Hospitalizations have risen sharply just as staff members have fallen ill.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo) University Hospital in Salt Lake City is suspending most surgeries as COVID-19 outbreaks hit staff and patients.

University of Utah Hospital is suspending some surgeries as COVID-19 outbreaks have infected hundreds of employees and their families while hospitalizations begin to rise.

The hospital already had seen a 400% increase in COVID-19 admissions since Christmas, said Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer. “That has created some strain,” Vinik said.

Now, he said, “a lot of our staff, despite being fully vaccinated and wearing appropriate precautions, have gotten sick as well.

“We have lost hundreds of staff in the last few days due to illness,” Vinik said. “We’re having to reduce the number of beds available to our patients at least for the near future.”

At least 500 employees were sick or isolating as of Tuesday, said Sarah Sherer, the hospital’s human resources chief. That includes kitchen and housekeeping staff as well as nurses and doctors, Vinik noted.

New cases in Utah have reached near-record highs in recent days as the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus sweeps across the state.

Intensive care units at Utah’s large “referral” hospitals were at 91% of capacity on Monday, the most recent day for which data was available; ICUs are considered “full” at 85%, and Utah’s major hospitals have exceeded that since mid-August.

The U. has been trying to empty about 50 beds while the hospital staff is stretched thin, but “we’re having to stretch because we’re so full that we haven’t been able to take the beds offline,” Vinik said. Instead, employees have been working extra shifts.

Meanwhile, Vinik said, 12 patients were waiting in the emergency room for a bed to open up during the online news conference where hospital administrators announced the surgery delays.

“That worries us, knowing the worst is ahead of us,” he said.

More than 14,700 Utahns tested positive for COVID-19 during the long New Year’s weekend, with nearly 4,700 new cases reported on Monday alone. More than 2,000 of those were in Salt Lake County, where case counts in recent days have far exceeded any other point since the pandemic began.

The U. will postpone about 20% of its surgeries for at least a week, said Dr. Robert Glasgow, the hospital’s chair of surgery.

“We have to be able to preserve our abilities to do surgeries ... where major risk to life or limb are at stake,” Glasgow said.

Patients whose surgeries are delayed should call their doctors to ensure the hospital has the most up-to-date information about their condition, Glasgow noted; recent changes in symptoms could affect how a patient is triaged.

Intermountain Healthcare also was delaying some surgeries based on volume and staffing, said spokesman Jess Gomez.

“Patient volumes remain very high,” Gomez said. “Our COVID referral hospitals ... are again at 100% capacity. ... We really need help from the community to slow the spread, especially now that omicron has set in here in Utah.”

Meanwhile, the U. doctors again urged Utahns to get vaccinated to avoid serious illness, rather than relying on reports that the omicron variant produces a milder illness than previous variants of COVID-19.

“We’ve got 40-year-olds who are hospitalized, who are fighting for their life with omicron,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, the hospital’s chief of infectious diseases. “I wouldn’t bet my life on the fact that this is just going to be a cold. I’m doing everything I can to prevent getting infected and to prevent the people I know from getting infected, even though they’re vaccinated and boosted.”