SALT LAKE CITY — After Joni Crane got rear-ended four years ago on I-15 twice within three days on her way to work, the pain didn’t immediately kick in. And without insurance at the time, she needed to keep providing for her family and continued life as usual.

But her back pain slowly became more unbearable, Crane recalled, until one day she “couldn’t put feet on the ground without screaming anymore.”

This year she started to get answers from a neurosurgeon, but then her doctors began shuttering their offices when COVID-19 hit Utah.

“What it did for thousands, millions, probably, of people, was that it extended their diagnosis space,” Crane, a former Utah GOP official, explained.

As part of contingency planning for the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Department of Health on March 16 ordered elective procedures halted to preserve hospital bed space and critical supplies like gowns and face masks, which have been in short supply not just locally, but globally.

In late April, as Utah prepared to move into its moderate-risk phase in the pandemic, state officials announced elective surgeries would again be allowed in a “measured way.” While announcing the change, Herbert noted that some of the postponed procedures and operations became more critical while they were on hold.

Since then, a backlog of surgeries that had been considered elective, or not time-sensitive, has arisen.

In early May, Crane received her diagnosis. She would need two separate surgeries to fuse her vertebrates.

“And I was so relieved that I was going to get some pain relief finally,” Crane said.

But the hospital where her surgeries will take place couldn’t get her in until September, meaning she would need to wait another four months, during which she is left dealing with the overwhelming pain that includes constant migraines. Her doctors have placed her on multiple nerve blockers and antidepressants, oxycodone and muscle relaxers, and have given her epidurals.

At University of Utah Health, while time-sensitive surgeries are not delayed as they were allowed to proceed throughout the pandemic, “there is a backlog of surgery that is not time sensitive, and we are working at capacity to make sure that those patients get the procedures they’ve been waiting for as soon as possible,” Kathy Wilets, University of Utah Health spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Intermountain Healthcare “has safely resumed most elective surgeries following the recommendation from the Utah Hospital Association,” Dr. Rob Ferguson, senior medical director of surgical operations at Intermountain Healthcare, said in a statement to the Deseret News.

“As Utah moves from orange to yellow in the state’s COVID-19 risk-classification system, Intermountain is rapidly working to care for patients whose surgeries were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Priority for surgical cases is based on patient acuity, patient health needs, and time sensitivities,” Ferguson said.

When asked whether state health officials were working to prevent a similar halt to elective surgeries in the future, a Utah Department of Health spokeswoman referred the Deseret News to the Utah Hospital Association, as it is guiding hospitals across the state as they resume surgeries. However, the hospital association did not provide a comment on the issue. 

Crane said she is speaking to draw attention to those in similar situations whose surgeries were considered elective and who are suffering in silence.

“When you’re as miserable as these patients are, instead of being super loud and vocal you’re laying in bed whimpering, and you can’t advocate for yourself when you’re in that much pain,” Crane explained.

She said she hopes hospital officials will do what they can to address the backlog now, including opening more surgical rooms if necessary. She also hopes state officials will consider changing how they address surgeries in a future pandemic or other emergency.

“I don’t blame the doctors and I don’t blame the hospitals. ... This isn’t about placing blame. But it’s about recognizing the suffering of so many humans out there,” Crane said.

“I think the way that we prioritize issues, we aren’t very empathetic. We don’t think outside the box,” she said, pointing out that while some were worried about finding and stockpiling toilet paper, others were struggling with serious health issues and pain.

“I think a more empathetic review of priorities needs to be happening,” she said.

New cases

One more person died with COVID-19 in Utah, officials confirmed Tuesday.

The latest fatality was a Salt Lake County man, described only as between the ages of 60 and 85, who was hospitalized when he died, according to the Utah Department of Health.

A previously reported death that had been included in Utah’s toll was determined to be a resident of another state, officials said. The state’s death toll from the novel coronavirus now stands at 113, the same as Monday.

Utah also added 203 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday out of 3,679 tested, a daily positive rate of 5.6%. The Beehive State now has 10,202 who have tested positive for the virus during the outbreak, 6,319 of whom are considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

In Utah, 221,791 people have been tested for the virus as of Tuesday. Of them, the overall positive rate is now 4.6%.

The current hospitalization number increased Tuesday to 108, with at least 12 new patients requiring hospital care, the state health department said.

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 5,449; 469 hospitalized; 74 deaths.
  • Utah County, 1,991; 105 hospitalized; 17 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 476; 46 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Davis County, 476; 42 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Summit County, 417; 37 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 308; 29 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 308; 32 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 294; 14 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Bear River, 267; 15 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 132; 8 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 38; 3 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 26; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 20; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.