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Fact Check: Are Colorado Hospitals Making Breakthroughs in the Way COVID-19 is Treated?

July 14, 2020 / CBS Denver
Normal ECG line representing claims that are true

According to recent press reports, Colorado hospital systems have been working closer than ever before to improve COVID-19 treatments and save lives. The results have dramatically reduced the mortality rate and shortened the number of days COVID-19 patients are spending in the hospital on average.

CLAIM #1: Under a “unique collaboration,” Colorado hospitals have been working together to development breakthroughs in treating COVID-19 patients, saving lives and speeding up recovery times for patients with the novel coronavirus, CBS Denver reports.

FACT:

This is correct. Seven Colorado hospital systems recently held a public briefing on COVID-19 patient outcomes and how the treatment of the virus had improved between March 2020 and May 2020.

At the briefing, held on June 23, the chief medical officers (CMOs) of the seven hospital systems – Banner Health, Boulder Community Health, Centura Health, Denver Health, HealthONE, SCL Health and UCHealth – released preliminary data showing the following trends in patient outcomes:

  • The mortality rate for hospitalized COVID-19 patients fell from 15.1% to 10.5% – a reduction of almost one third.
  • The percentage of hospitalized COVID-19 patients needing a ventilator fell by more than half, from 28.7% to 13.3%.
  • The average length of stay for hospitalized COVID-19 patients fell from 11.78 days to 6.82 days – a 42 percent reduction.          

During their briefing, the CMOs explained that medical professionals across different health systems are collaborating closely on the use of new therapies, including antiviral drugs and convalescent plasma, along with innovative new strategies for treating patients that keep them off ventilators and help them recover from COVID-19 faster.

Scott Bookman, the COVID-19 incident commander for the State of Colorado, said this teamwork between the hospital systems has helped Colorado make it through the first wave of COVID-19 infections and, more than that, put the state in a strong position to deal with the next phase of the pandemic. As Bookman told reporters:

“I’ve had the pleasure of working in healthcare in Colorado for more than two decades, and in that time, I have never seen health systems come together like this to serve the state in the way that they have. …

We now have an opportunity to take all the work that has been done in wave one, [and] as we start looking down the road, we really have a great platform to go from.”

Bookman also noted that hospital systems have contributed to a major increase in COVID-19 testing capacity in Colorado:

“At the state lab, we were initially able to run through about 40 tests per day. The state lab now has the capacity to do over 2,000 tests per day. The hospital systems represented here have all brought testing on at their facilities to allow for rapid testing for patients. …

We’ve also seen our private lab partners come on board as well. As we move forward into a potential second wave, we certainly have a significantly greater testing capacity than we had when we started.”

Much of the briefing focused on one major breakthrough: The discovery that COVID-19 patients could cope with lower oxygen levels than previously thought and avoid the need to be intubated and placed on a ventilator.

As Centura Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Shauna Gulley, MD, noted: 

“One of the most important things we learned early on was that permissive hypoxia – or allowing oxygen levels to float a little lower than normal – made a big difference in how we cared for our patients. It allowed us to avoid mechanical ventilation and overall improve outcomes.”

The CMOs explained that while intubating and ventilating a patient is often a lifesaving treatment, it also carries risks, and COVID-19 patients requiring ventilation experienced higher mortality rates, longer lengths of stay and were less likely to be discharged directly from hospital to their homes. But collaboration between the hospital systems was critical for this information to be shared widely and acted upon quickly.

As UCHealth Chief Medical Officer William Neff, MD, explained:

“That permissive hypoxia clinically is a little bit scary for the providers because it kind of goes against what you usually think what you want to do, which is keep the oxygen levels up. But because we were able to share that ‘yes this is working’ and ‘yes this is how we are doing it,’ I think each of the system felt a little more empowered to be a little more aggressive with those protocols.”

During the briefing, the Colorado Hospital Association noted that the close collaboration of hospital systems in our state has not been matched elsewhere. HealthONE Division Chief Medical Officer Gary Winfield, MD, echoed CHA’s praise for this collaboration along with the support of state health officials.

“Part of the results in outcomes, from ventilators to mortality to the utilization of critical meds, was due to this collaborative and this shared of data. It really is something special.”

SCL Health Chief Clinical Officer J.P. Valin, MD, also noted that due to the social distancing requirements put in place to combat COVID-19, many of the senior medical leaders who are working together in response to the pandemic have never actually met in person. However, they were still able to collaborate on the best ways to treat COVID-19 patients and ensure the capacity of the state’s hospital systems were not overwhelmed.

Dr. Valin concluded:

“I think it’s not overstating things to say that lives were likely saved in the state by this collaboration — the ability to accelerate our sharing of information across the state.”