COVID-19 is still filling rural Utah’s hospitals. Now providers are bringing in the military.

Hospitalizations remain extremely high in some of Utah’s farther-flung corners, even as statewide data reflect sharp declines in cities.

(Intermountain Healthcare) Utah National Guard members approach St. George Regional Hospital on Feb. 8, 2022. The Utah National Guard has deployed 57 members to southwest Utah to work in the hospital and in long-term care facilities, as health care systems struggle to operate amid high numbers of COVID-19 infections and staffing losses during the pandemic.

Ivins • Pfc. David Bravo has two days to learn the basics of nursing: taking a pulse, changing a bedpan — even practicing dressing other people’s bodies by putting socks on a mannequin.

“With such a [tragic] pandemic going on, it’s rough on everyone,” said Bravo, one of 57 Utah National Guard members who are being deployed to southern Utah hospitals and nursing homes that are struggling to operate as the effects of January’s massive surge in COVID-19 cases linger in rural counties.

While cases — and hospitalizations — have dropped in Utah’s major population centers along the Wasatch Front, other parts of the state still are reeling as more and more patients are admitted.

In the TriCounty health district of northeast Utah, for example, more than 120 people for every 100,000 residents in Uintah, Daggett and Duchesne counties were hospitalized in the past two weeks alone — a higher rate than Salt Lake County has reported for any two-week stretch during the recent surge, according to a Salt Lake Tribune analysis of data from the Utah Department of Health.

And in southwest Utah, more people were hospitalized in the past two weeks than during the two weeks before that.

Now health care providers in southwest Utah are calling for help. Eleven National Guard members are being sent to St. George Regional Hospital to work in non-clinical roles, like food service, moving patients around the hospital and janitorial work. It’s the first deployment of guard personnel in a hospital setting in Utah.

Sgt. McKinlay Bracken of Salt Lake City said he was told to brace for “long hours” of changing bedpans and remaking soiled beds — “just being able to help where we’re needed,” he explained in a news conference this week in St. George.

St. George Regional has been “operating at capacity for a long time,” said Mark Evans, operations officer for the hospital.

“Our ICU has been over 100% capacity for months, since the summer time,” Evans said. “... We’ve had people working many long, overtime hours. You can only do that so long. It’s not sustainable.”

Hospitals statewide have reported enormous staffing losses in recent weeks as employees fell ill from the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. Others have become overwhelmed or burned out while working understaffed shifts, and quit without notice.

Nursing homes and rehabilitation centers have seen similar losses, said Carl Hugie, who oversees veterans homes for Salt Lake City-based Avalon Health Care.

“The healthcare industry as a whole is failing. You don’t have enough nurses, you don’t have enough CNAs [certified nursing assistants]. You don’t have enough staff in any of the health clinics. And so that’s really what the National Guard is trying to address,” said Hugie, who is a former nurse himself.

Avalon operates the Southern Utah Veterans Home, where Bravo and other guard members have federal funding to work until at least April 1.

His training covers some of the duties of a certified nursing assistant. On Thursday, Bravo sat in a circle with his comrades in their camouflage uniforms, reading pulses from each other’s wrists. After that, they huddled around nursing instructors to learn more about how to guide a veteran who is using a walker.

“Being able to apply my knowledge to take care of them is an honor,” Bravo says. “It’s something that I feel like I hope they enjoy, and they appreciate because we appreciate them.”