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Local and regional hospitals at capacity with influx of mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients

Aspen Valley Hospital ER_Alex Hager.jpg
Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Valley Hospital, whose emergency department entrance is pictured here, may have a difficult time transferring patients in need of critical care now that Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs and other hospitals across the state are at capacity.

The fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the state, and local hospitals are once again being stretched thin. As regional hospitals in places such as Grand Junction and Denver fill up, Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs has seen an influx of patients in recent weeks.

According to Valley View’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Brooks, the hospital has been at capacity over the past month — and things don’t seem to be getting better.

“This is definitely up there with some of the worst that we've seen,” Brooks said. “We have a dedicated staff and an administrative team that has allowed us to enter what we call ‘a surge capacity’ that has allowed us to take care of more patients.”

The hospital usually has 33 acute-care beds and 10 intensive-care-unit beds available, but staffers had to add beds to accommodate the surge. With hospitals across the Front Range at capacity, Brooks said Valley View is seeing an increase in patients from rural communities across the Western Slope.

“Valley View is really committed to taking care of our local community and our regional community, which includes Western Garfield, Meeker, Rangely, Craig, Aspen, Grand River,” he said. “And as such, we've had a lot of patients transferred in from those regions.”

On average over the past month, 25% to 33% of Valley View’s patients are hospitalized with COVID. Despite vaccines being widely available now, Brooks said the number of patients they are seeing is comparable to the number about this time last year.

“We've seen unfortunately more deaths than we've ever seen, and they tend to be a little bit younger, and this speaks again to vaccination status,” he said.

According to Brooks, 94% of the Valley View patients who have died from COVID were unvaccinated and about 80% of those currently hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated. Garfield County reported three COVID deaths Monday, bringing its death toll to 64.

“It just strikes me as how preventable some of these unnecessary deaths are,” he said. “It's sad to realize that there are kids out there that aren't seeing their moms or their dads, and at this point, we could have stopped it.”

Although Aspen Valley Hospital has not reached capacity, it changed its inpatient hospitalization and transfer capacity status to “cautious” last week. With 92% of ICU beds across the state filled, Pitkin County health officials said this could make it difficult for the hospital to transfer patients in need of critical care if necessary.

“This change is directly related to a reduced transfer capacity to hospitals with higher levels of care and not based on hospitalizations at AVH, which remain comfortable,” Pitkin County health officials said in a news release last week. “The best mitigation remains increasing vaccination rates and adhering to indoor masking and other measures to reduce transmission of COVID-19.”

According to Pitkin County epidemiologist Josh Vance, children ages 11 and younger had the highest rate of COVID cases over the past 14 days.

“We need to get the kids vaccinated, and we all need to consider the benefits of these vaccines. They're safe, they're effective,” Brooks said. “I think it's going to end if we all do the right thing.”

With pediatric vaccines now approved and starting to roll out in Pitkin County this week, Brooks and local health officials hope that more people will get the jab so that the Roaring Fork Valley and the rest of the state can return to normal.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and Morning Edition anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.