How Wyoming Hospitals Are Dealing With A Record Spike In COVID-19 Patients

Oct 9, 2020

At the start of the pandemic, the CEO of St. John's Hospital in Jackson had a big concern. The hospital runs a Senior Living Center and Paul Beaupre feared an outbreak.

"We unfortunately had rehearsed and prepared for an outbreak in our Senior Living Center. And it became an eventuality," he said.

As part of routine testing in the center, a patient tested positive. Beaupre said he didn't want any positive COVID-19 patients at the center. So even though the patient was asymptomatic, the individual was transferred to the acute care wing of the hospital.

"Within two days, [we] determined that we had an additional eight residents, so nine in total, and three staff members who tested positive for COVID," said Beaupre.

In accordance with the plan, the eight residents were also sent to the acute care wing. This filled the inpatient COVID-19 area by half.

"You always worry that we will get overwhelmed, but we're doing everything possible not to let that happen," he said.

Back in April, as Wyoming watched other states deal with an overwhelming number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, most hospital administrators and doctors breathed a sigh of relief as they had time to prepare and plan. But with current COVID surges, hospitals around the state are putting these plans to test.

"We're seeing certain areas of our state with more hospitalizations, but not to the point where every bed is full," said Eric Boley, the president of the Wyoming Hospital Association.

This past week saw a record 56 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Wyoming. Boley said it's concerning to see hospital numbers increase rapidly but he feels confident that the facilities have contingency plans if they get overwhelmed.

"With CARES [Act] funding that they received, they've been able to build surge capacity, and they'll be able to treat those patients off site in alternative locations within the communities and within the state," said Boley.

But State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist doesn't have such an optimistic stance.

"We are hearing about local hospitals starting to feel the pressure. It's important to remember that many of Wyoming's hospitals are small, with just a handful of beds available for the most seriously ill patients," she said.

"St. John's Hospital is under a lot of pressure right now. They have many staff who are either sick or quarantined. And we're getting very close to that impacting the care that we can provide locally."

She stresses that hospitals still need to take care of patients sick with illnesses other than COVID-19. She pointed to the Billings Clinic in Montana as an example.

"The largest hospital in Billings where many Wyoming patients are frequently treated, has been forced to add beds in another older building, and has been transferring some patients back to Wyoming for care," she said.

The Billings Clinic is at the point where Wyoming hospitals don't want to be: struggling to find space to expand for both COVID-19 patients and other ill patients. St. John's Health in Jackson has ways to get more space for patients. Teton County Public Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell said staffing is more of a concern.

"St. John's Hospital is under a lot of pressure right now. They have many staff who are either sick or quarantined," said Riddell. "And we're getting very close to that impacting the care that we can provide locally."

Currently 23 staff are quarantined. Seven are positive and the rest are being isolated due to contact with a positive case. If more staff are positive or exposed he said this puts a strain on the hospital's ability to care for the sick.

"If you fall and break your leg, or if you have a heart attack or a stroke, or you need your appendix out. All of those things are potentially impacted if the hospital can't provide its standard level of service," said Riddell. "And that is under a lot of stress right now."

Most experts are hopeful that this recent spike is due to pandemic fatigue and that the surge of cases and hospitalizations will make people do the right thing: social distance and wear a mask.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudelska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.