‘In the thick of it’: Intermountain Health Care coping with COVID-19 surge, affirms efficacy of vaccines

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Vaccine (Photos by Tang Ming Tung/DigitalVision/Getty Images)

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4)- Utah is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitals are doing what they can to deal with the surges.

The Utah Department of Health on Thursday reported 1,805 new cases of COVID-19 with 418 of those cases being school-aged children. The total amount of deaths in the state related to COVID-19 has risen to 2,983.

During a virtual press conference on Friday, Dr. Edward Stenehjem, an infectious disease expert at Intermountain Healthcare, said hospitals within their network are at 99% capacity with 45% of that capacity being COVID-19 patients.

“We’ve been here for a number of weeks,” Stenehjem said, “We haven’t really seen a decline in our capacity.”

With more people becoming infected with COVID-19, hospitals have begun exceeding capacity.

Stenehjem said during the press conference they hoped the number of cases would decline but Thursday’s data shows the state is at “a high plateau” as far as the number of COVID-19 cases. He expects to see those figures continue to plateau in the next few weeks unless there is a downtrend of cases.

IHC expects they’ll be “in the thick of it” for at least another 2-4 weeks.

With hospitals exceeding or about to exceed their threshold of patients, they’re having to take drastic measures at times just to be able to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients.

So far, IHC has had to stop non-urgent surgeries according to Stenehjem. Patients with complex surgeries like heart surgeries and vascular surgeries need ICU beds right after surgery to recover.

At the moment, IHC can’t provide those patients with the care they need because of capacity issues at their hospitals. If beds aren’t available, patients may need to be sent to another hospital. 

Still, Stenehjem said that anyone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, stroke or anything severe should go to the hospital right away.

“We will find room,” he said.

They’ve also had to deny transfer requests from out of state. Normally IHC accepts those cases but because of the capacity issues, they are not.

Another concern according to Stenehjem is how ICUs will be staffed as the number of patients with COVID-19 continues to rise and are admitted.

Given that, Stenehjem praised the staff working with patients in the ICU and emergency areas.

“The true clinician heroes are the ones that are in the ICUs and in the medical floors that are caring for these patients day in and day out,” Stenehjem said.

Staff working in those areas of the hospital talk to family members through Ipads and through masks and face shields. As a result, Stenehjem said they’re getting better at their jobs.

However, he also says that it’s sad to see people suffering because of a preventable disease.

Another issue that was brought up was what was going to happen in the coming Winter months. When the vaccines came out, there was hope that things would get better and they did. At this point, Stenehjem said they’re just waiting to see how the next few months will be since they have no solid predictions of what the next few months will be like.

Unlike the south where the number of Delta cases have gone down, they’ve gone up in Utah. 

Cases in the south peaked during the summer but as was mentioned earlier, they leveled off in Utah around the time school started.

Home testing for COVID-19 has helped but Stenehjem said there’s not that many home tests in Utah. Because of that , it becomes difficult to measure how many total positive cases there are in Utah which then makes figuring out the full impact of the situation from those positive cases all that much harder to do.

However, with vaccines now widely available, Stenehjem said a major surge like the one last year is not as likely.

“This year we have well over fifty percent of our community members fully vaccinated,” Stenehjem said. That makes half of the population protected from hospitalization from COVID-19. There are also those who developed natural immunity as a result of already having whatever variant of the COVID-19 virus they have. 

That means that the number of people who are susceptible to this disease is considerably less than last year.

But Stenehjem said things can always change which is why it is difficult to predict whether or not there will be a surge in the winter. 

“I don’t anticipate this going away,” Stenehjem said.

With regard to boosters, Stenehjem said information on them is constantly changing but more information is to come, especially with regard to the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. 

With Pfizer, on the 6th month or as early as the 4th month, the effectiveness of the vaccines starts to wane to about 80% to maybe the high 70s percentage-wise, Stenehjem said . Getting a booster shot six months after the second dose will increase antibody levels as well as overall protection. 

Boosters are available for the Pfizer vaccine for anyone 65 and older. Stenehjem said people between the ages of 50-64 with other medical complications like diabetes or obesity should also get a booster. People between the ages 18-49 with similar complications should consider getting a booster but it is not strongly recommended. 

Also, those that “by nature of their occupation” like healthcare workers, teachers, and grocery store workers that are at high risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 should also consider getting vaccinated.

Stenehjem said that in Israel, it was observed that those who received a booster shot were better protected and the vaccine effectiveness increases as well. 

One of the principal issues addressed in the press conference was vaccine hesitancy. Stenehjem said that it was understandable that people had questions when the vaccines came out.

“There were only a couple of studies on [the vaccines] even though they had 40,000 people each study,” he said. Even then, people waited for more data. As time went on and people started taking the vaccines, scientists were able to understand the vaccines a lot more.

“Our knowledge of these vaccines is much, much different now than it was six months ago,” Stenehjem said. He reaffirmed the efficacy and safety of the vaccines.

“Right now, I would say that the COVID-19 vaccines are the best-studied vaccines that we have in the world.”

Side effects were experienced by some people who took the vaccines. Stenehjem said those side effects happened within two to three months from the initial vaccination.

With how much time has passed since the vaccines came out, they are able to identify those symptoms quicker than before.

“We’re at about 10 months of follow-up and so we’re going to have identified those effects due to the vaccine by now,”  Stenehjem said.

All the information that has been collected on the vaccines and side effects has made it imperative for people who were hesitant about the vaccines at first to speak with their doctors about being vaccinated.

“It’s time for those people who were hesitant because they wanted more knowledge, we have more knowledge right now and I’d say talk to your healthcare professional about that because we have an incredible amount of data on safety and efficacy that supports the vaccination.”

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