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UCHealth prepares for highest number of COVID-19 patients over holiday

"Thanksgiving will really be a defining moment for the state of Colorado," said medical experts.

DENVER — With the Thanksgiving holiday just days away, medical staff, like at UCHealth and across the state, work around the clock to prepare for even more COVID patients.

Between UCHealth's network of 12 nationally-recognized hospitals throughout Colorado, the health system is already caring for roughly 370 COVID patients. 

We spoke to Dr. Richard Zane, the chair of emergency medicine at UCHealth, about what he’s already seeing in ICUs and what he’s most worried about.  

9NEWS: How does this third wave of COVID-19 compare to the first surge of cases in April? 

Zane: Well, there's certainly more patients, both in numbers of patients getting admitted and numbers of patients who are presenting to the hospital. Now, the good news is, the proportion of patients who are being admitted to the hospital compared to those who are presenting is lower than in April. And the proportion of patients being admitted to the ICU is also lower. But in absolute numbers, the numbers are higher.

Unlike the spring, the emergency departments and hospitals are very busy with other care as well.

Overall, patients are doing better in the hospital and smaller numbers of patients are requiring ICU care. But make no mistake, this is still a very severe disease. Patients are still very sick and patients are still, unfortunately, dying.

9NEWS: How does your current COVID-19 treatment compare to April? 

Zane: I think science has never moved at this pace in the history of science. The same is probably true for medicine. So we've really moved and understand this disease much better than we did eight months ago. In fact, orders of magnitude different.

That includes how and when to hospitalize a patient, what the warning signs for impending severe illness look like, how to vent a patient and if to vent a patient – meaning put them on a ventilator.

But, like everybody else, we are extremely concerned about what's going to happen over Thanksgiving.

9NEWS: What is your biggest fear about the Thanksgiving holiday?  

Zane: We can't predict the future, but we do plan for the worst. And we always plan for the worst. 

We know that people are going to gather and we also know that we're going to have a spike – or we're assuming we're going to have a spike – after Thanksgiving. There has been a spike after every holiday. Even the holidays in the summer.

It's pure and simple math. As the number of people who have it in the community increase, the rate of spread increases. It's an exponential increase, so the chances of catching it are much higher than they were in the summer. We're expecting that there's going to be an exponential increase in the number of patients who are presenting with COVID related disease, unless something great happens, which is that Coloradans take this incredibly seriously.

Thanksgiving will really be a defining moment for the state of Colorado.

9NEWS: What does current ICU occupancy look like?

Zane: We're extremely busy. The hospitals, the ICUs, the emergency departments all across our system are very busy. We work continuously to increase our capability and capacity, literally, day to day and often more frequently in the day to day.

9NEWS: What happens if you hit capacity?

Zane: If we hit capacity, we get more capacity. We continue to plan for what the next step is, and the next step is looking at every space, every bed, every provider. Thinking about how we can use non-traditional space, how we can use non-traditional providers and where that space is and what it looks like.

Right now, I think that staffing is ok. But people are tired. Just like the population has COVID fatigue, I think healthcare workers have COVID fatigue, as well. Maybe even a bit more COVID fatigue.

9NEWS: As a healthcare professional, are you concerned? 

Zane: When you see the hospitalization rates increasing, it is a cause for concern. Although we are prepared and we work hard every minute of every day to increase capacity and capability, there is no way to say we are not concerned about what's coming.

9NEWS: Can Coloradans help?

Zane: I cannot overemphasize how important this Thanksgiving is going to be. And I cannot overemphasize – I could say it 1,000 times – how important what Coloradans do and how they behave over this holiday is going to do to the two weeks after the holiday.

I canceled my Thanksgiving. And it's not great. I'm not looking forward to it. But the alternative is pretty dire.

To all the Coloradans out there, the single most respectful thing you can do to thank us for what we’re doing is to pay attention. Please wear your mask, physically distance, wash your hands.