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Intermountain official: Statewide ICU capacity remains full, compromising care

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Oct 8, 2021

TIM VANDENACK, Standard-Examiner

David Sagae, an Intermountain Healthcare phlebotomist, prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at a clinic on Sept. 10, 2020, outside the Weber County Library System facility in Ogden.

As of Friday morning, intensive care unit capacity at Intermountain Healthcare hospitals was still significantly impacted by COIVD-19 and high volumes of patients needing acute and critical care, the company reported.

During a new conference Friday, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, said hospitals across the state, particularly the state’s 16 referral center hospitals best equipped to treat COVID-19 patients, were at 99% capacity, with 45% of patients being cared for with the virus. The vast majority of those patients are unvaccinated, he said.

“We’ve been here now for a number of weeks and haven’t really seen a decline in capacity issues, which are remaining essentially at 100%,” Stenehjem said. “What’s driving that is COVID. I anticipate we’ll probably continue to see this level of occupancy for at least another two to four weeks.”

Stenehjem said because of the high volume of patients, hospitals are still having to halt nonurgent surgeries. And even though the hospital will find room for urgent conditions such as stroke or heart attacks, Stenehjem said it takes a lot of juggling and shifting around to make it possible.

“If patients need life-saving care, they definitely need to come to the hospital. We need to take care of them and we will find room and give that care to you,” he said. “There’s a big push to move people from the ICU to the medical floor, but we have to make sure it’s safe to move them.”

Stenehjem said moving ICU patients to other floors in the hospital can be challenging because some staff members aren’t used to taking care of such critically ill patients and they are being asked to care for more patients than usual. So instead of taking care of 12 patients, they’re taking care of up to 18 patients.

“If we have no bed or ICU bed, we may have to ship them to another hospital. We also have to deny transfer requests for out of state patients,” he said. “Typically, Intermountain accepts those with open arms, but we’re just unable to accept those patients.”

Stenehjem said Utah had a very quick onset of the delta variant, and while other states across the nation are starting to see a decline in those cases, Utah remains at a plateau.

“We’re trying to assess the epidemiology but our market now has a lot of home test kits — and that’s a good thing, but those tests don’t come into the state, so we don’t have any eyes on those positive tests,” he said. “At that point, you turn to the stable measures which include hospitalizations, urgent care visits and (emergency department) visits. ED visits have decreased a bit and that’s a very good sign. We would like to see hospitalizations follow.”

As winter approaches, Stenehjem said it will be hard to predict whether another surge will show up, but because well over 50% of Utahns are fully vaccinated and others have natural immunity from the virus, he’s hoping things will be a bit calmer than last year.

“I don’t think we anticipate any really big surges, but with that being said, I also said that last summer and look what happened,” he said. “But it’s going to be with us through the winter. It’s going to be with us through next year. We’re hoping it will be lower.”

Stenehjem said other respiratory viruses are also expected to show up this winter, including influenza. Making the appropriate diagnosis, he said, is extremely important.

“If someone has the flu, we need to treat them with Tami flu. If they have COVID, they need monoclonal antibodies,” he said. “We are also seeing an odd spike of (respiratory syncytial virus) in kids right now and we don’t know what that’s going to look like moving through winter.”

Stenehjem said two recent studies have shown the COVID vaccine to be safe and effective.

“We’re part of a national group that’s studying the effectiveness of the vaccine over time and were able to access electronic data throughout seven networks over 187 hospitals, and the study showed the vaccine was incredibly effective at preventing severe illness across all ages, ethnicity and medical conditions,” he said. “So we have a very good handle on the safety and are very confident to say they are very safe and effective. So for those people who were hesitant to get it because they wanted to know more, we now have more information. Our knowledge of these vaccines are much much different than they were six months ago.”

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