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Colorado ICU bed capacity reaches pandemic high

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Posted at 10:25 PM, Sep 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-16 23:07:18-04

DENVER — The number of intensive care unit beds available in Colorado dropped to 11%, which is about 200 beds.

It’s raising concerns, and experts are calling on Coloradans to roll up their sleeves and get the vaccine to help prevent hospitalizations.

“We now have the lowest number of ICU beds available that we have had at any point in the pandemic,” CDPHE COVID-19 Incident Commander Scott Bookman said.

The threat of COVID-19 is undeniable. More than 900 patients with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 are in hospitals across the state, and a majority are unvaccinated.

The critical care straining the system is a combination of COVID-19 patients, trauma patients, an early respiratory virus and delayed cared during the pandemic, according to experts.

“More heart attacks, more strokes,” Bookman said.

State experts are closely monitoring the data.

“We are watching this trend with concern. We still have a significant amount of ICU bed capacity available to Colorado, certainly when you compare it to other states,” Bookman said.

San Luis Valley currently has no ICU beds available.

HealthOne COVID-19 admissions have tripled since Aug. 1, and approximately one-third require ICU care. Of those ICU patients, half require ventilation, according to the hospital's latest data.

A vast majority of COVID-19 patients being cared for at HealthOne hospitals are unvaccinated. A spokesperson with the hospital expects the increase in patients to continue over the coming weeks as they reach the next peak. Despite the spike in patients, the current hospital ICU capacity remains stable.

UCHealth on average has 285 ICU beds, but the hospital has expanded in some areas to care for more patients. The hospital currently has 113 COVID-19 patients in ICU and at least 88 are not vaccinated, according to data on the UCHealth website.

“At many of our hospitals, every ICU bed is in use,” a UCHealth spokesperson said.

As the spread of COVID-19 surged in late August, the Combined Hospital Transfer Center was reactivated to help transfer patients to partner hospitals in case of resource shortages. Last year, it helped facilitate 800 patient transfers in a four-month span.

Cara Welch, the senior director of communications for the Colorado Hospital Association, said hospitals are working diligently to manage the increase in ICU care and have plans in place to add space and change patient care priorities if needed.

Welch and Bookman agree the biggest challenge hospitals face is staffing shortages.

“ICUs take specialized staff both in their doctors and their nursing staff,” Welch said.

Health care workers are burned out after 18 months on the front line. Some have left the profession, and others are taking time off or have left to work in another state offering a better wage.

Texas and Alabama are experiencing severe ICU bed shortages. Welch said Colorado hospitals have received patient transfer requests from hospitals across the U.S.

“Some of our hospitals are declining out of state transfer requests. Some are able to take them,” Welch said.

Out of state patients make up between 1% to 2% at UCHealth, but it’s unclear if they are COVID-19 patients or if they are seeking medical care for another reason. A spokesperson with the hospital said they are accepting fewer out of state transfer requests than they normally would.

“We need to double down with this virus," Bookman said. "While we may be done with it, it is not done with us yet."

He stressed that the vaccine is the only ticket out of the pandemic.

The first vaccine dose has been administered to 75% of all eligible Coloradans.

A recent student found that unvaccinated people are 11 times for likely to die of COVID-19 and 10 times more likely to end up in the hospital with the virus compared to vaccinated people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Editor's note on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2021 at 8 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated more than 900 patients with COVID-19 were in intensive care units in hospitals across the state. That's been corrected to reflect that number involves patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.