Over 82% of ICU beds full as Utah’s hospitals are once again stretched to capacity by COVID patients

Gov. Spencer Cox once again urges Utahns to get vaccinated.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Utah Department of Health deputy director Dr. Michelle Hofmann, Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson listen to a coronavirus briefing at St. Marks Hospital in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

Utah’s hospitals are being stretched to the breaking point as the result of the latest surge in COVID-19 patients — and there’s nothing left in reserve to save the day, the president of the Utah Hospital Association warned Tuesday.

“The delta variant is highly contagious, and it’s spreading rapidly,” said Gov. Spencer Cox. “As a result, our hospital ICUs are filling up and our health care workers are feeling the strain.”

Utah currently has the 12th-highest hospitalization rate in the country. As of Monday, 82.1% of intensive care beds in the state are filled. According to the Utah Department of Health, more than 18,000 people have been hospitalized with the coronavirus since the pandemic began.

And the rise of the delta variant is behind the surge.

“Just when we thought we were free of this, a new variant, a mutation, grabs us by the legs and, apparently, wants to shake us hard,” said Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association. “Our summer season is very, very busy. We’re stacked. … We can’t handle it.”

In the past month, the number of COVID patients in ICUs has jumped from 10% to 30%. “And it’s almost all unvaccinated people that are here in the hospitals now,” Cox said. “It’s starting to impact everyone because we’re now starting to have to delay surgeries to keep hospital space available for people who aren’t willing to get vaccinated.”

And that stresses a system that’s dealing with medical patients and others who have suffered accidental injuries. In addition to delaying some surgeries, Bell said, Utah hospitals have had to stop taking referrals from out-of-state facilities.

Bell also said they’ve had to reactivate their patient “transfer center,” which facilitates moving patients from one hospital if an open bed becomes available somewhere else in the state or there’s a need for a higher level of care, something they haven’t had to do for several months. Bell said they helped move 25 patients in the past week.

And during this past weekend, 28 Utah patients who needed intensive care were instead placed in regular hospital beds because there wasn’t room, Dr. Angela Dunn, the Salt Lake County Health Department’s executive director and Utah’s former state epidemiologist, said in a separate meeting Tuesday.

“That’s a patient from Price who needed a more critical care level,” Bell said. “That’s a patient at Intermountain who they couldn’t take because they were full.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association, points to a graph showing Utah’s ICU capacity at a coronavirus briefing at St. Marks Hospital in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.

“We’re preserving whatever capacity we have for Utah now,” said Bell, who was Utah’s lieutenant governor from 2009 to ‘13. “We can’t expect help from other places because every state, almost, is having a COVID spike to manage themselves. They’re not going to be in a position to export help, nurses, techs, docs, for our sake.

“We are not crying wolf on this thing,” Bell added.

Dunn said hospital capacity is now more fixed than it was during previous spikes because so many employees experienced burnout during the pandemic and have left open positions that hospitals have been unable to fill. That means “surge” capacity, which allowed Utah’s hospitals to keep admitting patients as hospitalizations peaked in the winter, is no longer there, Dunn said.

Cox sounded weary as he once again urged unvaccinated Utahns to get the shot.

“Just please, please, please get the vaccine,” he said. “Now, there will be consequences for those who decide not to get the vaccine. Those consequences may be hospitalization. Those consequences may be death.

“There’s so much misinformation out there and there’s so much data that proves that the vaccine is safe and effective. It’s truly the miracle that we’ve been praying for. So please don’t put it off any longer.”

Bell was equally blunt.

“Your decision to be vaccinated or not may well be one of the most important decisions you ever make,” he said. “The wrong decision could kill you, and you won’t know until it’s too late.”

Cox reiterated that he cannot issue a mask mandate for school because the state Legislature has barred public schools from requiring masks — but, he said, the state will provide free KN-95 masks to every child who wants one to wear in the classroom when schools reopen in the fall.

“We’re working on getting those now,” he said. “We will get them distributed as quickly as we possibly can so that we do have an option until kids under the age of 12 can get those vaccines.”

There’s no word yet on when COVID-19 vaccines will be authorized for children under 12.

— Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this story.