ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) —- Respiratory therapists and nurses from other hospitals within the Intermountain Healthcare system are now being transferred down to southern Utah to meet a growing number of responsibilities and demands as cases of coronavirus continue to soar, officials at Dixie Regional Medical Center announced Thursday morning.
Dr. Patrick Carroll, Dixie Regional medical director, Dr. Bryce Ferguson, medical director of the ICU at Dixie Regional, and Heather Anderson, a night shift ICU nurse at Dixie Regional with 17 years of experience, joined reporters in southwestern Utah to provide an update on the pandemic, hospital capacity and surge planning. All three urged the support of the entire community.
Carroll expressed a sense of urgency to limit coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the community. Although multiple contingency plans are in place, rooms can be converted, and supplies can be replenished, Carroll said staff are limited and becoming burned out working many extra shifts with no end in sight.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Carroll said. “We just don’t know what mile we’re on right now, so we can’t give up. COVID-19 is a preventable disease.”
This week, the percent of individuals testing positive in Washington County reached a high of nearly 20%. The hospital’s ICU remains full and patients are continuing to be transferred to a surge ICU established earlier this month. On Thursday, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported 120 new cases, the second-highest single-day case count, and 25 local residents currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The exact numbers of overall hospitalizations are unknown at this time.
“Even if we open up more beds in the hospital, it doesn’t mean that new nurses and respiratory therapists will magically appear,” Ferguson. “We have been so grateful for our caregivers who have come in on days off, but we’d like them to be with their families.”
While patients are still receiving high quality, safe medical care, Ferguson said patients’ comfort and convenience are compromised. At the current pace, hospital officials said it will be “very difficult” to continue with the current level of physician, respiratory and nursing care. Last week, Carroll said the hospital saw more COVID-19 patients 85 years and older than they ever have.
Anderson, who has worked with a number of COVID-19 patients over the past several months, said the quality of medical care, from nurses to lab and x-ray technicians who have gone “above and beyond,” has inspired her during difficult times.
“We need help, and as a community, you can help us,” Anderson said. “I’m asking the community to take this seriously. The small things we’ve talked about are a small sacrifice.”
The ICU nurse shared emotional experiences with patients who struggle without human touch and connection in a “sterile” room with healthcare providers wearing “what looks likes space suits.” Anderson described herself as the patient’s “only lifeline to their family” at times. She shared that the family of a recent patient asked her to go in his room and whisper in his ear that they loved him and that he was a good parent.
“These are the type of things I watch the nurses do all of the time,” Anderson said. “These patients die alone and they receive the treatment alone, so we ask very much so for the community’s help. This is serious.”
Anderson said staff do “get frustrated with the misinformation spreading on social media” such as calling the virus a “hoax” and community members expressing distrust of information reported by public health officials.
“The hope that I get is from watching the doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists continue to take care of patients and treat them like human beings,” Anderson said. “That gives me great hope in humanity.”
While typically, the ICU nursing staff have mandatory on-call shifts every eight weeks, they are now working an extra shift every four weeks. Despite these increasing demands, Ferguson said the ICU is still looking for two additional nurses on each shift. On Wednesday, at least one nurse started at 6 a.m. and worked until midnight.
“I asked our respiratory care and nursing managers, ‘Would the caregivers rather be home or would they rather work the extra shifts and make the extra money?’ They just laughed,” Ferguson said. “It was obvious they would rather be at home with their families. However, their dedication to quality patient care is such that they’re willing to come in and work because they know the patients need it.”
Hospital officials are urging the public to take simple steps to limit the spread of COVID-19 by wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, staying home when sick, and washing hands. Carroll asked community members to get a flu shot and get tested if they have any symptoms of COVID-19 so they can stay quarantined and limit exposure.
“We will take care of every patient that comes into the hospital,” Carroll said. “We don’t want anybody delaying care because they’re afraid that there won’t be a bed for them.”
Looking towards the holidays, Dixie Regional Medical Center officials asked the community to consider forgoing traditional plans and instead looking for creative solutions “as an act of love and charity to friends, family, and the community.”
“I have heard some reports that people don’t want to give into the ‘fear tactics’ and so therefore they are going to choose to ignore or downplay the recommendations from public officials,” Ferguson said. “I don’t look at it that way at all. It’s, ‘Hey, you know what? I care enough about you and my community and Heather, our ICU nurse, and her colleagues that we’re gonna find an alternative way to do this this year.”
“While hospital officials have made some adjustments in contingency care, crisis care is where we start having to make some very difficult decisions,” Carroll said. “We’re not there, and we don’t want to get there. I think we can avoid getting there by taking these simple steps.”
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