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Hospitals Around The Mountain West Reach COVID-19 Breaking Point

Kevin Morris
Flickr Creative Commons

Utah has a number of major medical facilities that often take patients from all over the Mountain West. But the state is nearing a breaking point: too many COVID-19 patients and not enough resources. That crisis in care could have a domino effect around the region.

“It’s honestly just a numbers game, right?” asked Kevin McCulley is director for preparedness and response at the Utah Department of Health.

And according to McCulley, it looks like they’re losing that game. Because of that, he says they’ve given a heads up to neighbors like Idaho as a “fair warning.”

“We’ve reached a point where we anticipate where in a couple of weeks, we may have our flagship facilities reaching their ICU capacity, and when that happens, there are going to be challenges to the normal ICU transfer processes that exist on sunny days,” he said.

Idaho’s Hospital Association warns facilities there to be ready for the end of patient transfers, saying in a newsletter “Utah has informed the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) that Idaho hospitals should immediately prepare for when they will not be able to transfer patients to Utah, likely within the next seven to ten days.”

Daarryl-lynn Oakes, a spokesperson with that association, says that means communities in Eastern Idaho lose their back-up. So if patient numbers keep growing there, and those hospitals can’t handle it, they can no longer lean on Utah for help.

“If Idahoans don’t take that personal responsibility that the governor spoke of [on Monday], then we’re in the same boat as Utah – and that’s not the place we want to be,” Oakes said.

A bit farther north in Montana, that state hospital association says this isn’t good news, but it won’t affect many of their patients. That’s because they say Montana only transfers a few specific kinds of cases out-of-state for treatment, like complicated neurological issues from a car crash.

“Less than one quarter of one percent of the patients that are treated in Montana are actually referred out of the state,” said Rich Rasmussen, the president and CEO of the Montana Hospital Association.

However, several states around the West are starting to see patients transferred from smaller hospitals to larger ones already. Both health officials in Utah and Montana warn that if this is compounded by a bad flu season and people continuing to not wear masks or social distance, we could see more state emergencies and fewer places locally and regionally for new patients to go.

It’s not that COVID-19 patients take up all the beds, but they’re taking up more beds that could have otherwise gone to people facing other medical issues.

Rasmussen said they stress “the importance of making sure that hospital is available to deliver a baby, to provide needed cardiac services, to provide life-saving care in the event of an automobile accident. In order to be able to protect the integrity of our healthcare system, everybody has to do their role, and it starts with simply wearing a mask.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.