‘There is a war going on’: Intermountain staff ask public to take COVID-19 prevention more seriously

ST. GEORGE — Intermountain Healthcare launched a large public relations effort Wednesday with two messages: Their doctors, nurses and other caregivers are overburdened and exhausted in a war with COVID-19, and the general public could do more to stop that. 

Caregivers that handle COVID-19 patients at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. Undated photo. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Intermountain gave St. George News and other media an unprecedented look inside their hospitals as well as what it is like at what they say is the front of their war. A three-minute video was also being presented on all of Utah’s local news programs Wednesday night, a one minute portion of which is shown in the video at the start of this story. 

While the video takes care not to show patients, it does capture what it’s like to care for them, and, in some cases, fight to save their lives. 

Dr. Mark Ott, the medical director of Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, as well as other doctors and caregivers from the north and the south, described the pandemic as a “war.”

“There is a war going on. It is like a war where the community is sitting well behind the line,” Ott said. “People don’t feel like they’re near where the bombs are going off, but this is a preventable condition. This is putting a strain on our caregivers so we are making a plea to the community to mask up and take preventative measures. COVID-19 is a preventable illness. You don’t have to get it. We need people to wear masks all the time, we need people to social distance.”

Suiting up

When the doctors, nurses and other caregivers at Dixie Regional Medical Center prepare to go into a negative pressure room with a patient with the coronavirus, the procedure isn’t far from what an astronaut has to do before venturing out of an airlock into space.

Dr. Mark Ott (left), the medical director of Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, speaks alongside nurse Dani Beebe via Zoom chat. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

They get into a yellow suit with few openings, and a helmet with a clear front connected by a hose to a battery pack with fans bringing in filtered air. The motors are so loud, the caregivers have to yell for their patients to hear them.

Dani Beebe, a nurse at Intermountain Hospital, said there are times she has to get into that suit quickly to run to a patient who might have shown no signs of distress minutes before but is suddenly having trouble breathing and has to be intubated. 

And those patents she runs to aren’t always the elderly that some think of of when they think about those in the hospital for the coronavirus. They’re her age. 

Beebe, who has been an ICU nurse for three years, is in her 20s. 

“I never thought I would be taking care of people my age fighting for their lives,” Beebe said. “Many of my friends think, ‘Oh, I won’t get this.’ Until you see someone in their 20s on machines doing the breathing for them. … It’s so impactful.”

A caregiver that handles COVID-19 patients suits up at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. Undated photo. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

But Beebe said one of the scariest things she sees is when she is not in her protective suit or even at the hospital. It’s when she takes a random trip to get groceries. 

“I find it frightening to go somewhere like a grocery store and seeing someone not wearing a mask,” Beebe said. “It’s disheartening after taking care of so many people.”

Not about fear

Ott’s counterpart, DRMC Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll, said he is well aware that COVID-19 fatigue is setting in. Many people are tired of the pandemic, he said, but that doesn’t mean it’s going away. In fact, Carroll said it’s getting worse.

But he also said the message coming from doctors and nurses isn’t about stirring up fear, but creating a “respect” for the virus and driving a sense that people in the community have it within their power to stop it.  

“We need to separate fear from respect. We don’t need to fear COVID, but we need to respect it,” Carroll said. “Some people don’t get too sick from COVID, but some people don’t survive. We need to respect what covid can do. When we separate fear from respect, we can do what we need to do to keep people safe.”

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, seen during a Zoom teleconference with reporters on October 21, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

On Sunday, the number of patients needing care in Dixie Regional’s ICU reached beyond its 32-bed capacity, forcing the activation of the surge ICU plan converting more rooms to negative pressure ICU beds. 

Carroll said he doesn’t want to set an exact figure for the number of ICU beds they are capable of adding since that can change and he doesn’t want to set an artificial limit on what the hospital is capable of handling. 

If anything, Dixie Regional and Intermountain officials imply a limit on the capacity of the hospitals will not be as much a factor in the burden on the hospitals. Rooms can be converted, a BLU-MED tent is already set up. And supplies can always be replenished.

But if there is a concern, it’s that staff is something that can’t be built quickly.  

“What we don’t have more of are ICU techs and nurses. We don’t have those people on the shelf,” Carroll said. “If we run out of that, we move from contingency to crisis and we don’t need to be in a crisis.”

Carroll said while some nurses have been repurposed to fill other needs, the hospital has not had to do that on a large scale as of yet. But, he said, nurses, doctors and practitioners are running on fumes. With new infections still growing at this point, there isn’t any let up on the horizon.

“People are getting tired and getting burned out,” Carroll said. “It’s more than repurposing; we have nurses working a lot of extra shifts. That impacts them, that impacts their families.”

Caregivers that handle COVID-19 patients at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. Undated photo. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Carroll dispelled some of the false information being spread on social media concerning the virus and the hospital. He said a majority of those he sees in COVID-19 rooms aren’t necessarily elderly, and there are very few people from outside Southern Utah. 

“This is a local problem. A majority of the COVID patients are from our backyard. What we’re seeing in the hospital are your friends, your family members, your neighbors. This has strained our hospital unlike any disease we have seen,” Carroll said, adding that a big part of winning the war against COVID-19 will be to stop battling each other. 

“I hope people will step aside from how politicized this has become. I hope they will step aside from this being a battle between neighbors, between people from different states and just come together. But we have seen over and over again where mask use has gone up, COVID use has gone down.”

Carroll said he is also aware that as the numbers have now grown to the point where two of every 100 people in Southern Utah have had, or are still infected with, the coronavirus, there are some who experienced no or mild symptoms dismissing it as something people should not be concerned about. 

“We have to be careful not to translate one person’s experience into someone else’s experience. I will not discount anyone’s experience who has experienced the virus and just had very mild symptoms. At the same time, I would ask people not to discount the experiences of those that have lost a loved one or those who have had severe illnesses,” Carroll said. “And I would ask those who have had mild symptoms not to discount the effect this has had on our hospitals.” 

CDC sets new limits on close contacts

In a new guideline that will affect workplaces and schools, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set a shorter amount of time someone can be in close contact with someone infected with the virus before a quarantine is warranted. 

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through Oct. 21, 2020. | Background photo by bymbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Under the new guidelines, close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected individual for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department, Washington Country School District and other public and private bodies have gone by the guideline that someone does not need to be quarantined unless they have spent 15 consecutive minutes within 6 feet of an infected individual. 

This has caused a misconception that people do not need to quarantine if they spent only 14 minutes, 59 seconds near an infected individual, even if they had contact with them again later. 

Now, 15 minutes over a 24-hour time period is grounds for quarantine. 

While the Washington County School District had kept the number of teachers, students and staff infected at a lower number compared to other school districts in the state, in the last week, it has seen nearly a doubling of active infections, 40 as of Wednesday.

According to a Utah Department of Health document obtained by St. George News, as of Tuesday, there were 20 students and 13 staff members infected with the virus throughout the Washington County School District, while there were 275 students and 15 staff members in quarantine. Quarantines that were under the previous CDC guidance. 

As for Southern Utah as a whole, the Utah Department of Health reported 81 new infections in the five-county area Wednesday – tied for the third-most in one day – and the 40th death in Washington County since the pandemic began in March. The person who died was a woman aged 65-84 who was a long-term facility resident.

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Oct. 21, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 5,504 (68.7 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 4,364 (58.7 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 891 (6.6 per day, steady)
  • Kane County: 95 (0.7 per day, steady)
  • Garfield County: 90 (1.7 per day, dropping) 
  • Beaver County: 64 (1.0 per day, dropping) 

Deaths: 47 (0.3 per day, dropping)

  • Washington County: 40 (2 new since last report: female long-term facility resident between 65-84, male long-term facility resident older than 85)
  • Iron County: 3 
  • Garfield County: 3 
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 26 (rising)

Recovered: 4,431

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,363 (rising)

Southern Utah counties in high transmission level as of Oct. 15 (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less): Garfield (18.1% positive tests, 472.4 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in moderate transmission level (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less until Oct. 29): Washington (12.6% positive tests, 327.9 per 100,000 case rate), Iron (8.3% positive tests, 153.5 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in low transmission level (masks recommended, gatherings to 50 or less): Beaver (7.1% positive tests, 197.6 per 100,000 case rate), Kane (6.5% positive tests, 90.8 per 100,000 case rate)

(Note: A new transmission level report will be released on Thursday.)

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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