MURRAY — With the COVID-19 case count across Utah surging, Intermountain Healthcare, one of the leading healthcare operators in the state, is bringing in nearly 200 travel nurses to help contend with the situation.

Another 31 nurses from a New York City hospital have come to Utah, temporarily helping deal with the growing caseload at Intermountain’s LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City and Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.

“As one of my colleagues says, ‘Beds don’t take care of patients, people do.’ And staffing has been a challenge, like I said before,” Katie Thomas, associate medical director at Intermountain Medical Center, said at a press conference Thursday.

Ogden’s McKay-Dee Hospital is one of five Intermountain Healthcare hospitals in Utah contending with the most critical COVID-19 patients, and the influx of 190 travel nurses is meant to help the facilities. “Everyone’s seeing volumes and has been challenged with regard to staffing and has found creative ways to put patients in the right spaces,” Thomas said.

The state recorded 3,919 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus Thursday, which brought the seven-day average of new daily cases to 2,738. In the past week, Utah’s positivity average has increased from 19.5% to 23.2%, according to state data.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has said that such a high positivity rate indicates the number of infections is far higher.

“With our record case counts today ... it should cause us all to take stock in what are we doing individually to help do our part to slow this spread down,” said Gov. Gary Herbert.

There have been over 143,000 reported virus cases in Utah and 687 known deaths related to the virus, according to state data.

As of Wednesday, 468 people across the state were hospitalized at 29 Utah facilities due to COVID-19, 191 of them in intensive-care units, according to Utah Department of Health data. Fifty-two COVID-19 patients from Weber and Morgan counties and another 49 from Davis County were hospitalized, according to figures from the Weber-Morgan and Davis County health departments.

The figures are worrisome to healthcare officials, concerned the ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases will overwhelm the ability of the state’s hospitals to handle them. On Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert implemented a mask mandate and other measures, all aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“We will do this and our teams are stepping up and, like I say, working extra so we can make sure we’re caring for all of our patients. We have plans. It’s not going to be ideal, but we will take care of the patients,” Hallie Rector, nurse administrator at LDS Hospital, said at Thursday’s virtual press briefing, held at the Intermountain Medical Center campus in Murray.

Still, keeping up with case growth is requiring changes in how the facilities operate. More patient beds are being put into service at Intermountain Healthcare facilities and some are expanding and adjusting the sort of care they provide. Patients are being moved around so individual hospitals aren’t overwhelmed while some Intermountain Healthcare pediatric facilities are opening their doors to adults.

“Capacity is tricky because it’s physical space and staff. Right now, we are taking care of all of our patients. We’re just doing it in a creative way,” Thomas said.

Whatever the case, the workload is taking a toll on nurses and other healthcare workers. “They are working short-staffed, they are working many extra shifts and they are tired,” said Rector.

What’s more, they’re increasingly having to contend with “end-of-life issues” and assist patients who, because of COVID-19, may not be able to get personal visits from family. “These are things that we’ve never had to do before and it’s incredibly hard. It’s taking the time to hold the hand of the patient that was just placed on a ventilator due to COVID and they’re just so scared,” Rector said.

The travel nurses and visiting nurses from NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City are meant to alleviate the pressure. The New York contingent arrived in Utah last week and will be here for two weeks in all.

“I wanted to pay it forward to the front line workers who left their homes to aid us in our time of need. It was really vital and essential to us and we’re so thankful,” said Wen Hui Xiao, one of the New York nurses. Last April, Intermountain Healthcare sent a contingent of 100 nurses to help at five New York-area hospitals dealing at the time with a surge of patients.

Those taking part in Thursday’s briefing urged use of masks, hand-washing and social distancing to keep COVID-19 at bay.

“If the population who is not masking and distancing does not start doing that, I’m very fearful as to where we’re going to be in a couple of months. It’s essential that we all be respectful of our community and the health of our community,” Thomas said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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