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Utah Hospitals And Doctors Brace For Surge Of Coronavirus Patients

Photo of the outside of the University of Utah Hospital building
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University of Utah Health said it has had to shift resources in its hospital system to fight coronavirus, but it has no plans to lay off any of its roughly 13,000 employees.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continues to increase, Utah’s hospitals and doctors are preparing for a surge that many predict is inevitable. 

“Whether it's music, food, disease, things kind of start at the coasts and work their way toward the middle of the country,” said Alison Flynn Gaffney, executive director of service lines and support services at the University of Utah Health.

While Utah has seen a steady rise in the number of its cases over the last few weeks — more than 400 as of Thursday afternoon — the rate of increase has begun to slow. Despite significant increases in calls from patients worried about potential coronavirus symptoms, hospitals have not been overwhelmed.

Instead, Dr. Isaac Noyes, a hospitalist at St. Mark’s Hospital in Millcreek and medical staff director at Lone Peak Hospital in Draper, said it’s been unusually calm at both of his facilities this week.

“When it's quiet, usually it means that something is about to happen,” Noyes said. “It's kind of an eerie feeling where everyone's putting all this time and thought into preparation and we haven't started to see the uptick in volume.”

He said that’s concerning because it may mean that some patients are not seeking treatment who need it, but on the other hand it’s a promising sign. It could mean that people are taking social distancing seriously, and that is helping to slow the spread of the virus. 

Still, Utah hospitals are preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Greg Bell, president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association (UHA), said all member hospitals systems — including 45 community hospitals throughout the state — have suspended procedures that can be postponed in an effort to free up beds, equipment and medical personnel.

He said UHA is also working with the Utah Department of Health to track the state’s supply chain of personal protective equipment, otherwise known as PPE, which includes masks and hospital gowns. He said the effort is ongoing and couldn't provide exact figures, but said they are assessing the current number of PPE statewide as well as what will be needed. 

Hospitals have also been analyzing their floor plans to see where additional beds could be added and which areas of the hospital could be repurposed to serve patients with COVID-19. 

But with so much still unknown about the virus and developments coming in seemingly by the minute, Gaffney described it as a process of “figuring out how to figure it out,” akin to redirecting a cruise ship. 

For a hospital system as large as the University of Utah — with some 13,000 employees — such a major shift in resources is a huge and complex task. Areas like outpatient clinics and imaging centers have essentially shut down, while others have been gearing up for a yet unknown onslaught of patients. 

Despite the financial challenges involved, Gaffney said at least at the University of Utah, there are no plans to lay off any workers. And many will have to take on new roles and responsibilities. Nurses in the operating room, for instance, might shift into intensive care units or even to taking phone calls from patients seeking remote treatment. 

“I'm doing my job today and I could be cleaning the floors in two weeks,” Gaffney said. “So it's kind of all hands on deck. We need everyone.” 

The financial strain is mounting though, particularly for smaller hospitals that rely on routine procedures — joint replacements, for example. Earlier this week, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide mandate requiring all hospitals, dentists, and veterinarians to suspend non-urgent procedures.

“It just takes their lifeblood away.” Bell said. “They don't have any business, they don't have any cash flow. It’s just killing them.”

Bell said Utah’s smaller hospitals are hoping for relief money from the federal government. Otherwise, they might not be able to keep their doors open. 

In the meantime, the rest is left to Utahns, who despite hospitals’ efforts will have to continue practicing social distancing in order to keep themselves and others healthy. It’s all the more crucial before the surge comes. 

“If you're not sick or don't know anyone that's sick, it should be that positive affirmation that we’re doing what’s right and it’s working,” Noyes said. “When you get to the point where grandma's in the hospital and we're seeing higher fatality rates, it's too late.”

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

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