‘We’re stretched to our limit’: COVID-19 patients now take up 20% of Dixie Regional Medical Center

ST. GEORGE — Dixie Regional Medical Center has seen a substantial increase in new coronavirus patients in the past few days to the point that 20% of the capacity of the hospital is now filled with COVID-19 patients. There are also now more COVID-19 patients needing intensive care in the hospital than that are the number of ICU beds usually available.

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

Between Saturday and Monday, there have been between 55 and 61 Southern Utah residents in the hospital for COVID-19 – the most since the start of the pandemic in March. 

But Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of the hospital, said the issue is not the number of beds available or the supply of ventilators or personal protective equipment at the hospital.

The problem is the hospital is running out of staff to take care of the seemingly unending influx of patients. 

“Currently, we have adequate supplies. We have adequate space, including the BLU-MED tent . The staffing issue is the most critical issue,” Carroll said. “Staff is the limiting situation right now. It’s critical to understand is ICU volumes are above ICU capacity. We have enough covid patients to fill our normal ICU space. That takes a lot of nurses, that takes a lot of respiratory therapists.”

Normally, an ICU nurse at the St. George hospital is responsible for one patient, maybe two if the ICU is nearing capacity.

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, speaks by teleconference with reporters on Nov. 30, 2020. St. George, Utah. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

Right now, ICU nurses are handling at least three critically ill patients at a time.

“That may not sound like a lot. But remember that these are these are critically ill patients,” Carroll said.

They are also continuing to need to be running more, and longer, shifts. Most nurses are pulling five 12-hour shifts per week and answering texts to come in at other times when additional help is needed. 

“As of today, we had the highest number of ICU patients that we’ve seen, and while I didn’t look specifically at the numbers historically for the last several years, I think it’s fair to say that we have more ICU patients today than we’ve ever had in the history of Dixie Dixie Regional Medical Center,” Carroll said. “We’re well beyond the normal ICU capacity. We’ve expanded and surged outside of our normal.”

There have already been traveling nurses brought in to Dixie Regional, and more are coming.

And it’s still not enough.

File photo of doctor and nurse assistants working with a coronavirus patient. | Photo by keanu2, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Rhiannon Wanlass has been a nurse for 15 years, the last seven at Dixie Regional’s ICU. She said she has been asked by her family and circle of friends, “Is it really that bad?”

Wanlass said it isn’t that bad. It’s worse. 

“They say it’s just like the flu. I’ve been through flu pandemics here. We’ve done the H1N1 multiple times. People get sick from that, but it’s not been anywhere close to this,” Wanlass said. “It’s overwhelming us as nurses to see so many people just keep coming in and no end in sight. We’re stretched to our limit now, and if it keeps getting worse that it’s a daunting task to see where we’re going to go. Nurses are working five 12-hour shifts … and we’re still running short.”

That task is made even more daunting with the thought of what is to still come in the next few weeks. 

Carroll had praise from what he said were a large number of Southern Utahns who heeded the warnings and kept Thanksgiving limited to their households and took other measures to prevent the spread of the virus. However, there are still those who didn’t.

Because of the gestation period of the virus, the effect of the holiday weekend won’t be showing up in the Utah Department of Health statistics for at least another week, and it will likely be another week after that before the Thanksgiving hospitalizations will be showing up at Dixie Regional – right around the time people will be gearing up for another family-heavy Christmas holiday. 

Rhiannon Wanlass, an ICU nurse at Dixie Regional Medical Center, speaks by teleconference with reporters on Nov. 30, 2020. St. George, Utah. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

Wanlass said that like an athlete in a playoff series, she and her fellow nurses are taking things “one day at a time” and trying not to even think about the influx of patients that may be coming in as a result of Thanksgiving on top of all the patients already at the hospital. 

But that thought brings her to tears. 

“We’re trying not to think about it. We’re just getting through each shift in each day. We’re taking each day as it comes. Because if it becomes so overwhelming to worry about … I mean sometimes when I get done, I’m going to cry, right? You think, ‘I don’t know if I can come back and do this again.’ We’ll keep coming back and we’ll keep providing the care we can, but we’re trying to just take it shift by shift. Unfortunately, that’s the only way we can keep coming back.”

Like a hurricane, the pandemic cycle has seemingly had calm eyes in the middle of the storm as far as infections. One week of record-breaking numbers of new infections become a plateau a week or two later, while those new infections become a new surge of hospitalizations and deaths. 

New infections have plateaued now, as the Utah Department of Health said there has been a sharp reduction in new cases over the last five days as they say measures like the statewide mask mandate enacted three weeks ago seem to finally be having an impact. 

But there has never been an eye of the storm for the hospitals. Part of the reason is, usually, a COVID-19 patient admitted to the hospital is there for at least 30 days. New patients are piling on to those already in the hospital. Carroll said unlike the summer surge, where hospitalizations had moments where they had dropped down, there has been no hospitalization lull in the current spike that has been taking place since late October. 

And in the last two weeks, 21 Southern Utahns have lost their lives to COVID-19, including another death reported in Washington County on Monday.

The main entrance to Dixie Regional Medical Center on in St. George, Utah on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“We’re starting to flatten out a little bit (in cases). I hope that trend continues. I hope that’s not just because the numbers were not reported on Thanksgiving and that there wasn’t testing opened on Thanksgiving day. And time will tell whether or not this is a sustained flattening or decrease or whether it’s simply a blip,” Carroll said. “But we’re also seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations and the increase in the hospitalizations has actually been quite significant.”

Whereas at the start of the pandemic, social media was filled with inspiring images of seemingly entire cities cheering for doctors and nurses as they left their shifts, it is now filled with accusations that doctors and nurses are misrepresenting what is happening in the hospital. That they make more money because of more COVID-19 patients. Or that the hospitals aren’t really filled with more patients at all.

And even though the “Heroes Work Here” banners still fly outside the hospital, that criticism has become frustrating to face, Wanlass said, after another 12-hour shift. 

“We’re not used to seeing people just kind of shrug it off in the community. And it’s hard. I wish people could understand,” Wanlass said. “Online, people can distance themselves and not really feel like this is something that’s real to them. It’s hard because we’re trying so hard in the hospital.”

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.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Nov. 30, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 11,958 (181.7 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Nov. 28)

  • Washington County: 9.550 (141 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 1,836 (34.9 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 173 (2.9 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 240 (1.6 per day, falling)
  • Beaver County: 159 (1.4 per day, falling)

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • NOTE: Today’s numbers are combined Saturday and Sunday numbers
  • St. George: 114
  • Washington City: 30
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 18
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 15
  • Cedar City: 33

Deaths: 91 (1.1 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 76 (1 new: hospitalized male over 85.)
  • Iron County: 6 
  • Garfield County: 6
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: 55 (rising)

Active cases: 4,582 (rising)

Recovered: 7,057 

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,312 (falling)

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

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