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MCKENZIE LANGE/The Daily Sentinel

A Community Hospital employee administers a COVID-19 test at the drive-thru testing site on Thursday.

Mesa County has reached capacity on Intensive Care Unit beds as a result of surging COVID-19 hospitalizations, prompting health officials to enact surge plans for accommodating more patients.

A release from the county health department Thursday morning said “as of November 18, there are no ICU beds available.” In response, the county health department said area hospitals are moving to surge capacity to ensure additional bed space.

“We have hospital beds available, and we have surge plans in place that will allow us to grow capacity and ensure safe, quality care to as many patients as need us,” St. Mary’s Medical Center President Bryan Johnson said in the release. “We all have a role to play in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Please be proactive and do your part to take the necessary precautions. Wash your hands, wear a mask and continue to practice social distancing.”

Based on current testing data, roughly one in 130 Mesa County residents currently has COVID-19. According to the release, that means that, should one person interact with 20 people outside of their household in a day, they are more likely than not to encounter someone with the coronavirus.

Mesa County Public Health Executive Director Jeff Kuhr told The Daily Sentinel that the county’s press release isn’t intended to scare the public, but rather inform them of the growing risks hospitals are facing.

“When we say that our ICU beds are full, that’s under our current conditions,” Kuhr said. “We do have a plan and a way to convert other beds within all the hospitals into ICU capacity ... In addition, when we talk about available beds, that has to do with staffing. There may be a lot of beds in a hospital that may be available, but the question then becomes, ‘Do we have the staff available to work those beds, as well?’ ”

Kuhr said that all local hospitals have adequate supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), stressing that neither the staffing nor ICU bed situations are “emergencies” but rather issues of preparedness. However, he and other health officials felt compelled to inform the public of the situation to quell rumors and fears that the surge is overwhelming medical facilities.

Hospital capacity is particularly important as it relates to public health orders and what level of “openness” the local economy may enjoy. Earlier this week the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment amended its COVID-19 dial to add the purple level. At the same time, Mesa County officials said they would be moving into the red, severe risk, category. Those changes go into effect today. According to state guidance, the determining factor for moving a county into the purple, extreme risk, category is “where hospital capacity is at extreme risk of being overrun.”

Kuhr held a meeting with all local hospitals Thursday to go over the next steps for beds and staffing.

Veterans Affairs Western Colorado Health Care System Executive Director Richard Salgueiro said there is a “call to arms” for more staffing for local hospitals. Salgueiro encourages all retired or displaced clinical personnel to provide their services if they’re able to.

Salgueiro spoke to The Daily Sentinel about the VA Hospital taking in COVID-19 patients who usually wouldn’t qualify for the facility’s care.

“We are working with each other on a regular basis about transferring patients that are appropriate for our level of care,” Salgueiro said. “We’re working with (St. Mary’s) to take the lower-level cases in the community and transfer them over here so we can take care of them ... We have been taking our own COVID patients all along. Now, because of what’s happening with the hospitals in the area, we’re having to take more patients with COVID.”

Salgueiro noted that hospital employees face more risks as more COVID-19 patients are admitted.

“People who haven’t regularly worked with COVID patients, it’s one of the biggest risks I’ve seen,” Salgueiro said, explaining that details like safely donning and doffing protective equipment is critical to treating patients. “There are things we have to do in terms of making sure that our staff: 1. have the appropriate PPE, 2. they know how to use it, and 3. talking to their supervisors and getting feedback that they need to take care of the other patients that they’re having to support.”

Kuhr said it’s important to remember that the hospitalization rate is fluid. Data from the Mesa County Public Health COVID-19 dashboard on Thursday had the county at 51 hospitalizations, with 38 of those being Mesa County residents.

“The one thing to remember with hospitals is that, in any given day, when you’ve got a large number that goes in, there could be a large number getting discharged, as well,” Kuhr said. “We’re not just accumulating people and we’re going to get to a stopping point. The discharges have to be factored into that, as well.”

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