After COVID-19 Spike, U Hospital ICU Reaches Capacity


Photo courtesy of Chronicle Archives.

By Jack O’Leary and Alexis Perno


From Oct. 16 to Oct. 22, there has been an increase of 9485 cases in Utah, with an increase of 7682 confirmed cases per 100,000 people in Salt Lake County over the last 14 days according to the state seven day rolling average data organized by date of symptom onset or diagnosis.

The University of Utah Hospital, a trauma and quaternary care center, reported last Friday that the Intensive Care Unit had reached “more than 100% capacity” according to an article in The Salt Lake Tribune. This Friday, Oct. 23, the hospital reported the ICU was still 99% full, Mayor Erin Mendenhall “pleading” with the public to follow coronavirus guidelines.

As a regional quaternary care facility, the U Hospital is equipped with the necessary equipment to provide acute medical care. Rural medical facilities, as well as the larger Intermountain West region, are dependent on the U Hospital for ICU referrals, according to Utah Hospital Association President Greg Bell.

When the hospital reaches capacity, those other centers have to change their normal procedures.

“Moreover, [COVID-19 is] a shock to the system because if the University of Utah is full, then that means that the other quaternary facility IMED [Intermountain Medical Center] is likely under pressure and other referral centers throughout the state are likewise going to start filling up if they aren’t full already,” Bell said.

Intensive care units usually deal with severe health conditions like heart attacks or strokes. The pandemic has added almost 20% demand, a demand that requires special medical precautions, according to Bell. One special precaution is negative pressure rooms, where the air always blows into the room instead of out.

“In March, we had staff for all our facilities, but now we have people who are maxed out,” Bell said. “They’re just exhausted after seven months of this, or they are ill, and their family is ill… and we’re finding a real shortage of nurses and techs because of the pressure on the workforce generally.”

Salt Lake County Health Department epidemiologist Dede Vilven said a spike in school-age children in the county began at the end of August and the beginning of September. She called schools a catalyst for transmission due to the number of people, regardless of age, in contact with one another.

“I know that if [the infection rate] increases within the next few weeks how it’s been increasing, no, that is not sustainable,” Vilven said. “If it continues at this rate, I want to say that it’s at some point it’s going to level off, but it’s our hope. And the only way to do that is if people are changing their behaviors.”

On Oct. 13, Gov. Gary Herbert announced the state would be removing the previous color system that tracked coronavirus cases, instead of replacing it with a transmission index. Restrictions will be placed on counties depending on case numbers and testing rates according to the Salt Lake Tribune

In Utah County, the Health Department’s Sept. 20 public health order requiring a mask mandate expired on Oct. 22 with new state guidelines being implemented at the local level. The state’s transmission index places Utah County at the highest level of transmission and encourages the community to follow all state guidelines, including continuing wearing masks, said UCHD public information officer Aislynn Tolman-Hill.

According to the Utah Health Department, Utah County has the second-most cases in the state with 26,948 cases and 78 deaths.

“I would much rather see my county going down, but that is not where we are at right now,” Tolman-Hill said.

Salt Lake County has the most cases in the state with 43,647 cases and 297 deaths.

“I know everyone’s feeling fatigued,” Vilven from SLCHD said. “We all want to see our family, we all want to hug Grandma, we all want to have a get-together… but it really should wake people up and hopefully change some behaviors for this upcoming fall season.”


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