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Hospitals In Rocky Mountain States Struggling To Keep Up With Coronavirus Surge

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As new COVID-19 cases surge across the country, hospitals in Rocky Mountain states are among those struggling to keep up. In Utah, hospital leaders have told the governor they're on the cusp of rationing access to intensive care beds. Idaho and Montana doctors are having trouble finding places to treat infected patients. John Daley, reporter at Colorado Public Radio, is watching this unfold from Denver, joins us now to explain. And, John, I want to get right into that warning from Utah, which I think is very striking for people. What does it mean for hospitals to consider rationing care?

JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Well, Audie, in Salt Lake, that means they're approaching that point where the number of patients simply overwhelms the ability of providers to care for them as they normally would. The hospitals there say they've prepared what are called crisis standards of care. This is essentially an emergency triage type of posture where tough decisions would have to be made about who gets care. In practical terms, that's essentially a system of grading patients, of rationing care based on things like age, overall health and ability to survive. Doctor Estelle Harris at the university hospital said Utah's hospitals are now seeing five or six times more COVID-19 patients than a few months ago.

ESTELLE HARRIS: I do think that although we currently are operating over 100% capacity of our normal ICU beds with COVID, we do have some good plans in place if we have to use them. But that will come with an enormous strain on the COVID care providers.

DALEY: Now, hospital leaders say they're not there yet, but they're not far away and warn if the community doesn't take proper precautions to bring the numbers down, that could happen.

CORNISH: I understand hospitals in Salt Lake City treat critically ill patients from nearby states, including Idaho and Montana. Is the Utah backup affecting those states?

DALEY: It is. Both Idaho and Montana have been seeing record hospitalization numbers, too. Neither state has a medical school, so they don't have a big academic medical center. And they rely on the University of Utah and other places with bigger facilities to take their tougher cases. So if Salt Lake hospitals are full, that means they have to look elsewhere. In Montana, one small town hospital reported that they had to call five different hospitals before they found one 600 miles away that had some room. A hospital in northern Idaho is now sending patients to Portland, Ore., for help. And Wyoming is now among the top five states for new infections per capita, too.

CORNISH: We mentioned you're in Denver. What's going on in Colorado?

DALEY: Well, in Colorado, hospitalizations are hitting levels not seen since the start of the pandemic in the spring. Colorado's governor says he's watching Utah and doesn't want that to happen here. But the projection is the state's hospitals could hit that point at the end of December. A number of communities like Denver are returning to tighter restrictions on public gatherings and businesses. Clarence Troutman, who was hospitalized for nearly two months with COVID-19, is urging Coloradans to take it seriously.

CLARENCE TROUTMAN: When I hear certain people say that this isn't real or it's just a bad cold or flu or even that it's a hoax, I find that very disturbing because it's so much more than that. It's 100% real. And we can't do too much to be safe and protect ourselves.

DALEY: The governor said he wants residents to follow public health orders to bring the numbers down before the holidays and, of course, the ski season, which is right around the corner.

CORNISH: That's John Daley from Colorado Public Radio.

Thank you.

DALEY: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.