U of U Hospital is catching up on 500 surgeries. Now it’s bringing in the military to help.

The Navy medical team will help University Hospital reduce a backlog of surgeries that were delayed during the pandemic.

(Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune) A U.S. Navy medical team enters University of Utah Hospital on March 2, 2022. The team will help hospital staff with a backlog of about 500 surgeries that were delayed during the coronavirus pandemic.

With a backlog of about 500 surgeries that were delayed during the coronavirus pandemic, University of Utah Hospital is bringing in a U.S. Navy medical team to help catch up.

“We’re going to be able to open hospital beds that have been closed because of staffing,” said Dr. Michael Good, hospital CEO. “We’re certainly not back to normal, but we’re trying to shift and get headed in that direction. Our colleagues from the Navy help us accelerate that pivot, that transition.”

The Navy has deployed about 20 medical staffers, including physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and administrators, Good said.

The U. has been delaying surgeries off and on during the pandemic in order to care for an influx of COVID-19 patients with a shrinking staff. University Health, which employs about 14,000 people, has more than a thousand vacancies, said Sarah Sherer, chief of human resources. That’s about double the number of vacancies the health system typically had listed before the pandemic.

And during the surge of the highly contagious omicron variant in January, hundreds of employees were unable to work because they themselves were ill.

That’s when the hospital delayed most of the pending surgeries, Good said. Time-sensitive procedures still went ahead, he noted. So, for instance, doctors would perform a surgery to remove cancer, but the subsequent reconstructive surgery would be delayed. Doctors also delayed procedures like back surgeries and surgeries to improve circulation, Good said.

“Those are the types of things that, when the hospital had so many COVID patients and because of the staffing shortages, were some of the things we’ve had to defer,” he said.

The Navy medical team is staying for about 30 days — possibly not enough time to completely clear the backlog, Good said, but “I think we’ll make a good start.”

Although hospital administrators have said throughout the pandemic that employees were overwhelmed — and in some cases quitting without notice — the staffing shortage became particularly dire during the omicron surge.

“Really, it’s been in the past two months where we’ve really thought that we needed help,” Good said.

As health care providers statewide struggle to recover staff who left during the pandemic, state agencies are looking at efforts in other states to boost medical training for military personnel — similar to the brief certified nursing training Utah National Guard members received before deploying to St. George to support hospital and nursing home staff a few weeks ago.

That could help providers recover in the short term, said Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, “and also have a deeper base for future needs.”