State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has warned that Utah is in danger of overwhelming its hospital capacity due to the state’s accelerated rate of COVID-19 infection.
SALT LAKE CITY – Utah’s top epidemiologist says that the state is now in real danger of overwhelming its hospital capacity in the next few weeks.
Say what? How is that possible if only a small fraction of people who test positive for COVID-19 require hospitalization?
But Dr. Ed Redd of the Bear River Health Department confirms Dr. Angela Dunn’s warning, saying that the grim mathematics of an epidemic are simple.
Dunn’s warning was included in a stern memo to Gov. Gary Herbert that she penned June 19.
“We have heard from our health care systems (e,g, the Utah Hospital Association, the University of Utah and Intermountain Healthcare) that hospitals are going to exceed their capacity to care for individuals (with COVID-19) within the next four to six weeks,” Dunn wrote.
That prediction is based, however, on the assumption that the state’s recent spike in positive coronavirus cases continues without interruption.
On June 22, state officials reported a dramatic seven-day average of 471 new positive COVID-19 cases each day for the previous week, the highest average of cases in Utah during the more than three months of the pandemic. Since then, Utah’s rate of infection has continued to climb, reaching a record number of 591 positive cases reported on June 25.
Dunn’s memo recommended that Herbert re-impose Orange/Moderate threat level restrictions on businesses and group gatherings unless Utah lowers its weekly average of positive cases to 200 per day by July 1.
Herbert responded during a June 24 press conference that, while he has no plans to order an economic shutdown, Utah would delay any further relaxation of coronavirus precautions for two weeks.
From the sidelines on the ongoing debate, Redd says that Dunn’s concerns about overwhelming the state’s hospital capacity aren’t based on rocket science, but rather simple arithmetic.
“Utah has more than 3 million citizens and about 4,200 hospital beds, “ Redd explains. “Half to three-quarters of those beds are usually occupied by patients due to routine medical emergencies and problems.”
As of June 21, BRHD reported that about 300,000 Utahns had been tested for the coronavirus. A little more than 17,000 of those tests were positive and around 1 in 15 (6 percent) of those individuals required hospitalization, most of them in the age groups from 45 to 85 or more.
When Utah’s rate of coronavirus infection was about 200 new cases per day, the average COVID-related occupancy of about 200 hospital beds was sustainable.
“But what happens if the current accelerated daily COVID-19 case count of about 400 new cases increases to 800 new cases per day?” Redd asks, which could happen if Utah’s rate of infection continues to climb as it has in recent weeks. “We could then expect a four-fold increase in hospital bed utilization due to COVID-19 with an average of 800 hospitalized patients.”
The situation would be even more critical for patients requiring intensive care, the doctor adds.
There are only 576 ICU beds in Utah hospitals, with 280 of them occupied by non-coronavirus patients as of June 21. Another 80 of those intensive-care beds are already occupied by COVID-19 patents, many of them on ventilators. That leaves only 200 ICU beds vacant statewide and they would be quickly filled if Utah’s already high rate of infection were to increase in coming weeks.
But Redd agrees that Dunn is equally correct when she advises Utahns about practical ways to avoid the potential crisis in hospital capacity.
Those simple steps, he says, are just to practice physical distancing, wear face-masks and avoid mass gatherings in order to reduce the state’s infection rate.