UCHealth Highlands Ranch at 'base of a wave'

Hospital braces for surge of COVID-19 patients

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When Dr. Ben Usatch was first offered a job at UCHealth Highlands Ranch while riding a ski lift in Vail, he never imagined where he would be almost two years later: preparing for a pandemic.

Usatch, the medical director of the emergency room in Highlands Ranch, secured the job after he met the UCHealth systems’ chair of emergency medicine, Richard Zane, while on his ski trip. Now, he’s gearing up for a surge of patients unlike any he’s ever seen.

“The best way to state where we are now is we're on the base of a wave,” he said. “We're starting to see patients come into the hospital with a high suspicion for COVID-19.”

One day in late March, which Usatch called "a typical day right now," he saw five patients whom he suspected had the respiratory disease. One of these coronavirus patients was admitted to the 87-bed hospital for further care that day, he said. While figures weren't disclosed on how many COVID-19 patients are in the Highlands Ranch hospital, the entire UCHealth system had nearly 200 cases as of March 31.

The UCHealth system has 12 hospitals in Colorado, including the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora and UCHealth Broomfield Hospital.

“The art to medicine in this case is figuring out who are the sick ones and who are the ones who will rapidly become very sick,” he said.

It's important to identify those who aren't seriously ill with the virus so they can be sent home. While most people coming in with symptoms aren't in a dire state, some have been admitted for further care, he said.

“My expectation is that our numbers of COVID patients are going to increase,” Usatch said. “As numbers are doubling elsewhere, they will double here.”

As of April 1, Douglas County had 148 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 47 hospitalizations and 11 intensive care admissions, according to Tri-County Health Department. Six days earlier, there were 54 cases in the county. Also as of April 1, nearly 3,000 people in the state had tested positive and 69 had died from the virus.

As of late March, the hospital's resources weren't yet strained, he said. But based on what is happening in other communities in the United States, such as New York, Usatch worries about the hospital eventually reaching capacity. 

“We're doing everything in our power to maximize our bandwidth in this hospital,” he said. “There are just not enough ventilators in this country to deal with the surge.”

Hospital changes

The hospital, which opened in June 2019, is constantly preparing for the expected increase in patients, said Chris Olson, infection prevention and emergency preparedness program manager. To free up space and other resources, the hospital has postponed all elective surgeries.

The number of patient isolation rooms for COVID-19 patients also has been increased from 12 to more than 30.

Eventually, if necessary, the hospital may add tents to the outside of the building to increase capacity and improve the flow of patients, Olson said.  

A supply chain team also is working to secure additional vital materials such as masks, gowns, ventilators and more personal protection equipment. 

“We definitely pay close attention to how much we use every day,” Olson said. “We're in good shape at the moment.”

While the inside of the hospital doesn't look very different yet, there is a tension hanging around employees, Usatch said. The constant state of readiness can take a toll — not to mention the anxieties about getting sick or bringing the illness home to a loved one.

“I've been doing this a very long time and I've never seen anything like it,” Usatch said. “I've never felt this kind of threat to my own person while I've done this job... But we have a higher calling. This is what I signed up for.”

Usatch's biggest request of the community is to adhere to the state's stay-at-home order.

“Our friends and neighbors can make things so much easier for the hospital system if they just shelter in place,” he said. “I can't emphasize enough that we are partners in this. My neighbors are as much partners in this as everybody I work with. We need to work together.”

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