Utah Caregivers Celebrate Vaccine Arrival As ICUs Remain Full

Dec 18, 2020, 7:45 PM | Updated: 7:50 pm

MURRAY, Utah – While intensive care units in Utah hospitals remained at capacity, the doctors and nurses who care for those patients are now getting the vaccinations that will keep them safe.

Utah hospitals started vaccinating caregivers three days ago. The vaccine is creating a lot of excitement for workers who still care for very sick patients.

“The fact that our ICUs are still just teaming with COVID-19 patients is an indication of our really high case counts from a couple of weeks ago,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease doctor at Intermountain Healthcare.

He detailed a sharp contrast between the excitement over the arrival of a vaccine and the suffering which still goes on in crowded COVID wards.

Stenehjem called it a celebratory atmosphere when he got his first COVID-19 shot Thursday.

At the same time, there was a completely different atmosphere in the areas of the hospital where so many patients try to fight off the virus.

“It felt like a celebration. People were so excited to get this vaccine,” Stenehjem said. “It’s finally here. This is our way out.”

He also celebrated the scientific achievement of having a 95% effective vaccine so quickly.

As an infectious disease doctor, he is in the first tier of vaccinations because he cares for COVID-19 and non-COVID patients. “There haven’t been any real side effects at all, outside of the things that you would expect from a flu shot,” he said.

By the end of Friday, University of Utah Health will have vaccinated 2,500 workers and Intermountain Healthcare will have vaccinated well over 2,300 workers. It’s a good start.

Intermountain Healthcare has 40,000 caregivers to vaccinate.

“It’s important to keep them safe because we need them to be able to keep operating at such high volumes,” said Stenehjem.

In the meantime, the hospital continues to add ICU beds in new areas. Utah ICUs were 95.2% (511/537 beds occupied) full Thursday, and ICUs at the 16 referral hospitals better equipped to treat COVID-19 patients were 99.3% full (458/461 beds occupied).

KSL-TV asked Stenehjem to describe what the atmosphere is like in the two main areas of the hospital where COVID-19 patients are treated.

Patients who don’t need a lot of monitoring or supplemental oxygen go to a general medical ward.

“What you’d be shocked by is how quiet it is,” he said. Even in a ward with nearly three dozen patients. “You go onto that unit, and it’s a little bit eerie because it’s so quiet,” he described.

The ward is quiet, he said, because the patients have no visitors and all of the doors are closed to limit the spread of the virus.

In the ICU? “This is a much more intensive environment,” he said. “You’ll see a lot more flurry of activity because these are really intense, very sick people.”

Half of those patients are hooked up to ventilators and IV treatments, he said. Everyone is wearing a hood to prevent transmission of the virus.

“It’s loud,” he said, different from the other ward. “You’ve got all of these fans going that are essentially making the whole unit negative pressure meaning all of that air gets sucked out and into the environment.”

All of the caregivers need to talk loudly to be heard over the noise from the fans.

“So, it’s a pretty unique environment, and one that is tragic because what you see is patients suffering on ventilators,” said Stenehjem.

That’s why the caregivers are so excited about getting the vaccine, he said. They want to start turning this pandemic around for everybody in the community.

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Utah Caregivers Celebrate Vaccine Arrival As ICUs Remain Full