SALT LAKE CITY — Intermountain Healthcare’s Connect Care telehealth service has recently seen its demand at least double amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, causing the organization to bring additional providers into the program, officials said Tuesday.
“That’s all happened within a matter of 72 to 96 hours. We stretched capacity there with folks, through the goodness of their hearts, and willingness to realize this is an emergency situation ... that they stepped forward,” said Dr. Todd Vento, medical director of Intermountain Infectious Disease TeleHealth.
The first case confirmed in Utah was announced on Friday in a patient who had been on a cruise. Health officials said a second person tested positive on Monday night after returning earlier this month from a trip to Florida, the Bahamas and Nevada.
Connect Care providers usually offer about 160 visits per day during this time of year — but have seen visits swell to more than 200 a day in the past two weeks, officials said.
“Our nighttime tele-hospitalists are actually taking those calls so that our infectious disease docs can actually have a break and then be brought back in if there’s a case that needs more input,” Vento told reporters during a media tour of the Connect Care facility.
The organization also added extra shifts for providers.
“Really, it’s an all hands on deck right now for the Intermountain Medical Group as a whole,” said Kerry Palakanis, executive director of Intermountain Connect Care.
Telehealth services, according to health officials, are a vital way to stop spread in the community by bringing specialists to patients throughout the state remotely — and identifying at-risk patients before they go to a hospital in person and potentially spread the virus.
The health care organization will continue to increase its use of telehealth services in caring for patients with coronavirus, bringing in specialists via video conferencing to patients staying in the hospital to limit exposure, officials said.
The second patient who tested positive for the virus originally called Connect Care and was referred to McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, which isolated her from others and brought her into the facility believing she might have COVID-19, Vento said.
Nevertheless, one health care provider who treated her is under quarantine, as well as someone who treated the first Utahn who tested positive, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday during a press briefing.
When someone who suspects they might have coronavirus visits an Intermountain center, the provider will ask them if they’ve been near a COVID-19 infected person, or if they’ve been in an area with a high number of cases.
Vento recommends someone concerned they might have it should first call Intermountain’s free coronavirus information phone line at 844-501-6600 for advice on whether they should see a provider. The state also has a coronavirus hotline at 800-456-7707.
If someone does appear to be at risk, Connect Care is available via a web and phone app 24 hours a day, every day. The service provides video conference visits with providers that cost $59 or less depending on someone’s insurance coverage, according to Intermountain officials. The service will waive the fee if someone needs to be sent to get testing for coronavirus, and if Connect Care can’t help.
Intermountain’s infectious disease department worked with Connect Care to establish a screening mechanism on the Connect Care platform, allowing patients to get assessed for exposure risk and have their symptoms checked remotely without needing to go into a facility, Vento said.
“If at that time we felt that they were at risk for infection with COVID-19, then we would actually have a mechanism immediately integrated whereby that Connect Care provider would call the infectious disease TeleHealth service on-call and get an assessment and help make an evaluation to determine, does that person need to communicate with the health department and do testing so that we can identify a potential infection,” Vento explained.
That process has been in place for about six weeks, he said.
If the person is considered at risk, the patient is then immediately masked and then isolated in the facility before getting tested.
For patients who test positive for coronavirus and are at increased risk for complication — including those higher in age, with weakened immune systems or with a chronic lung infection — Connect Care will offer scheduled video visits to prevent them from needing to go out into the community, Vento said.
Mark Jorgenson, the Utahn who was confirmed with the virus after being on a cruise in Japan, will receive his follow-up visits that way, Vento said. Jorgensen was flown to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray before being released to self-quarantine in his St. George home on Friday.