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‘It’s survival mode’: Central Indiana hospitals battle surging COVID-19 cases

“I haven’t felt prepared for a long time."
Hospital Hallway
Posted at 10:17 PM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 06:47:35-05

CENTRAL INDIANA – Hospital beds in Central Indiana are quickly filling up as cases of COVID-19 surge.

Columbus Regional, Johnson Memorial and Franciscan Health — Mooresville are lifelines for their respective counties. All three are one of it not the only hospital nearby and all three are currently full once again with COVID-19 patients.

“I didn’t expect us to be here at this point. I think we had all hoped our vaccine rate would’ve increased enough that we wouldn’t be at this point again,” Columbus Regional’s Hospitalist Medical Director Dr. Lee Kiser said.

Dr. Kiser said Columbus Health, like much of the state and hospital, saw a peak in COVID-19 cases in September. After a few weeks of lower numbers, cases spiked once again with numbers “very reminiscent of last winter.”

“I think we're close to peaking almost where we did last winter already and not showing any signs of leveling off. We're all a little bit worried that this peak will actually even be worse than last year's,” Kiser said.

Right now, Columbus Regional has 49 inpatients out of 182 with coronavirus. Kiser notes those in the hospital without COVID are battling advanced cases of a variety of illnesses. He points to people putting off care during the pandemic for causing this.

“That 182 number is the highest census I have ever seen here in 20 years. Our normal hospital census would be about, I'd say maybe 110 to 130, so that 180 is kind of off the charts. And the fact that, you know, really 50, almost a third of those are COVID at the time kind of explains a pretty good part of why we're so busy,” Kiser said.

WRTV reporter Nikki DeMentri asked Kiser: “Do you feel like you can keep your head above water at this point?”

Kiser answered, “It is a challenge. There is no doubt and it really is a day by day. We will come in and look at the census and if it really feels like it's going to be too high, then I will honestly just call out some of the other physicians and say, 'Hey, things are really bad today, do you think you can come in?' And I mean, so far, everybody has been wonderful and very gracious, they've always said yes, whenever they can, but I do worry that I don't know how much longer we can keep asking people to keep working more and more hours.”

Kiser said Columbus Regional has yet to go on diversion.

“There has been times when it has been, I felt like very close when our ICU is near capacity,” Kiser said. “It makes me worry that if we ended up doing it [going on diversion], I think everyone else will already be there.”

On Wednesday, Johnson Memorial was on diversion.

“The house is full right now. We're trying our best to get patients moved that are waiting in the ED for beds trying to discharge patients. But this is you know, it's been pretty much the norm,” Johnson Memorial President and CEO Dr. David Dunkle said.

Dr. Dunkle said the hope amongst his team was that cases would stay down after the last surge during the end of summer. He said with a low vaccination rate and lax mask wearing, though, he is not surprised cases are increasing again.

“I’m not limited by the number of physical beds I have in my facility, I'm limited by the number of staff," Dr. Dunkle said.

Burnout with healthcare workers continues as many nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers are working extra hours.

“Resources are stretched,” Dunkle said. “When you see those dedicated health care workers mentally getting worn down, they need a break, and there's no break that's coming.”

Dr. Dunkle said like the rest of the world, staffing is an issue.

“You can't just run down to your corner store and say, hey, I'll take three nurses. It's a lot harder than that,” Dunkle said.

Johnson Memorial has 15 patients with COVID-19. Dunkle said the hospital is also waiting for more monoclonal antibodies.

“I wish people would get vaccinated because for a hospital our size … 15 COVID positive patients, the majority of which are unvaccinated — if you know I had 11 or 12 more beds, I wouldn't have to be on diversion right now and that we could cover with less staff,” Dunkle said.

Aside from COVID-19 cases, Dunkle said his hospital is also beginning to see other respiratory illness.

“Our actual COVID numbers of hospitalizations, they might not be higher than they were in the last surge, but the difference is we're seeing all these other admissions, all these other respiratory illnesses. That's the difference. That's why potentially this surge could be worse.” Dunkle said.

The concern of a ‘twindemic,’ he said, is “a real fear for hospitals.”

“It’s what keeps you up at night,” Dunkle said.

Franciscan-Health Mooresville had 22 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday morning.

“Can we all say that we’re prepared? I don’t know. We’re prepared with what we have. We have the history of being able to flex up,” Director of Patient Care Services at Franciscan Health-Mooresville, Lori Warner, said.

Warner said at peak her hospital saw 25 patients with COVID-19. On Wednesday, her ICU was full of COVID patients in all but one bed.

“If they [patients] have to wait a little longer, it’s not because people aren’t moving quick enough, it’s because they have a lot of sick people ahead of them,” Warner said.

The impact of Thanksgiving gatherings on coronavirus cases, Warner feels, is beginning.

“Right now it is difficult for staff and physicians and for all of the entire healthcare team because as you get these waves coming in, sometimes your own staff are ill, or people's family members. Dealing with that over two years is not something really anybody can plan for,” Warner said.

Warner also said her team is tired.

“Our Indianapolis campus, we have a nursing resource that works to support us and respiratory therapy, other people at other campuses can be allocated to help during those times [when more staff is needed]. But I think really, during those times, that's where the staff really step up, and know that we're all in this together,” Warner said.

All three hospitals say they are dedicated to serving their patients, but are pleading with the community to take COVID-19 seriously.

“We are still losing people every single day. People are dying from this and in some part it’s preventable. Really as a community we have to step up and say we have to make some sacrifices,” Dr. Kiser said.

A spokesperson for Franciscan Health sent over this statement before the interview:

“As in past COVID-19 surges, Franciscan Health has been actively managing our elective inpatient schedule, using a priority scoring system to determine which cases are safe to defer and which need to proceed as soon as possible. This approach allows us to match our caseload, both inpatients and outpatients, with available beds and staff on a daily basis.

Our hospitals continue to experience increased volumes of patients being treated for COVID. Since mid-November, the number of COVID hospitalizations at our Indianapolis campus has increased nearly three-fold from the low 20s to the mid-60s. The Franciscan Health-Mooresville hospital has set new records for COVID inpatients in the past few days with more than 20 inpatients, many of whom are critically ill. The vast majority of our hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated.”

IU Health released the statement below:

“In September, IU Health temporarily suspended elective surgeries and procedures that required a hospital stay throughout the system. Since that time, we’ve been monitoring our census, staffing and acuity levels to help decide when to resume non-emergent surgeries, and adjustments have been made on a region-by-region level. As we continue to have high volumes of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, each hospital will be cautious in making the decision to resume these procedures.

IU Health continues to see exceptionally high numbers of patients in all 16 hospitals with more than 1,800 inpatients daily. IU Health currently has 2,661 available hospital beds.

We are seeing a sharp increase in patients with COVID-19. Today IU Health is caring for more than 440 COVID-19 patients across the system.”

Ascension St. Vincent released the following statements:

Regarding elective procedures:

“Ascension St. Vincent is not currently limiting elective procedures. Changes to that decision depend on current inpatient totals within the hospital and our capacity to provide high quality care. Ascension St. Vincent remains committed to helping all who need it.””

Regarding hospital capacity:

“Our highest priority is the safety and well-being of the patients and communities we are privileged to serve. Ascension St. Vincent Indianapolis currently has the capacity to treat all patients, including patients diagnosed with COVID-19. All of our hospitals have a plan specific to that facility to quickly adapt to needed changes in capacity. Thanks to tremendous innovation and dedication and the tireless, inspiring work of our entire care teams, we have been able to flex and expand our capacity and continue to provide high quality, safe, and compassionate care for every patient who enters our facilities.”

Regarding current COVID-19 positive inpatients: 

"The health and safety of our patients and community remains our top priority.

The number of hospitalized patients fluctuates frequently, so any individual data points are only a moment-in-time snapshot. Like other local facilities have indicated, we have seen a notable increase in hospitalized COVID-19 patients in our facilities. Below are a few key statistics for today, Wednesday December 8, 2021: 

  • There are 51 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the Ascension St. Vincent Indianapolis hospitals. This is an increase of 11 patients since the previous Wednesday.  
  • Of these 51 patients, 12 are in an ICU.
  • For additional context, Ascension St. Vincent hospitals recorded the following total numbers of COVID-19 positive inpatients in 2021:
    • June: 256
    • July: 426
    • August: 1222
    • September: 1830
    • October: 808
    • November: 824

We cannot stress enough the importance of getting vaccinated. We believe the approved COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and the benefits of being vaccinated outweigh any identified risks or side effects.

Everyone in our community plays a critical role in keeping us safe from this virus. The most effective way of protecting each other is to get vaccinated and ensure your loved ones are vaccinated."