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What you should know as IU Health requests help from the National Guard

Demand and strain have 'never been greater' amid COVID-19 surge
IU Health Methodist tents
Posted at 8:27 AM, Dec 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-09 19:21:41-05

INDIANAPOLIS — IU Health officials announced Thursday that they requested help from the Indiana National Guard as hospitalizations increase across the state amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

A statement from IU Health said it asked for assistance for most its hospitals, except Riley Children’s Hospital.

“As COVID cases continue to increase and hospitalization of COVID and non-COVID patients reach all-time highs, the demand and strain on Indiana University Health’s team members, nurses and providers has never been greater,” the statement said.

Here’s a look at what it means as the Indiana National Guard moves in to help ease the strain.

Why is this necessary and what will it look like?

On Wednesday, the Indiana Department of Health reported 2,755 Hoosiers are hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state. It is the highest number of people in the hospital with the virus since Jan. 7, 2021. Case numbers have increased to their highest levels since last winter.

Paul Calkins, IU Health’s associate chief medical executive for IU Health, said the most patients recorded during the pandemic was 512 in December 2020.

“We are planning to go higher than that,” Calkins said. “The projections are in the mid-500s, most likely. Hopefully, it's a worst-case scenario, but there's no signs of things slowing down yet.”

IU Health said six-person National Guard teams will consist of two clinical and four non-clinical service members. Deployments will be in two-week increments.

Clinical service members might treat patients, and non-clinical service members with provide administrative and logistical support to allow hospital employees to focus on patient care, the statement said.

All members of the National Guard teams are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

How long will deployments last?

The Indiana National Guard provided a statement that said teams are scheduled to help for one week, but their stays could be extended if hospitals request additional staff through the Indiana Department of Health.

Where are National Guard members being sent first?

Chris Weaver, chief clinical officer for IU Health, said in a virtual news conference National Guard members have already been sent to Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie.

“Muncie was the first that we made the request for. They've been hit really, really really hard, high number of COVID patients in that area,” Weaver said.

How worried are health officials about omicron's impact?

While hospital officials are keeping an eye on the new omicron variant, they said delta is still the dominating force impacting Indiana.

“This is all delta,” Calkins said. “We don't have time to worry about omicron. We've got to deal with Delta. When omicron gets here, we'll deal with it then.”

What impact did IU Health's vaccine mandate have on staff shortages?

Weaver said that only about 125 of IU Health's 36,000 employees left because they did not want to get vaccinated. Of those 125, only about 60 were full-time employees, he said.

“That has minimal impact on the staffing issue that we have and the ability to take care of our patients,” Weaver said.

The bigger issue is the long-term shortage of nurses in Indiana and people retiring or leaving during the pandemic because of burnout.

“People are tired,” Weaver said. “It's really hard taking care of a whole lot of people right now. It's a big emotional strain to take care of people who are really, really sick, many of whom are dying. And the vast majority are unvaccinated.”

How does this affect other patients?

Calkins said the number of COVID-19 patients is causing backups and leading many people having to wait for surgeries.

“We use the term elective surgery, but we don't just operate for fun," he said. "People need surgery because they need surgery, and we're delaying a lot of surgeries.

"Probably several thousand people are in are in line to have surgery who can't be operated right now because of our COVID numbers and our just record-high census as well.”

However, Weaver added that people should still seek care if they are sick.

“We want to be clear about how much strain is on the health system and how tough it is now and how far everybody is stretch, and at the same time, we're meeting the needs,” Weaver said. “So, don't avoid care if you need it, and I want to be clear about the confidence we have about the high quality of care we're giving.”

Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association, said COVID-19 has exceeded the capacity health care systems were designed to deal with in some cases.

"We're fighting trends of higher and higher increases in COVID hospitalizations, many people coming to the emergency room with behavioral health issues, and trying to manage all that with fewer staff. And that is the challenge," Tabor said. "We want everyone to understand that we are under stress and ask for their patience when they interact with the system."

Tabor said he is also worried about patients with behavioral health needs or if there was a major type of incident.

"These things have occurred over time from natural disasters to other kinds of catastrophes," he said. "And that would really be taxing for the system right now because we have a lot of full beds and a lot of very tired frontline caregivers."

What about other hospital systems in Indiana?

WRTV's Nikki DeMentri reported Wednesday on the plight of hospitals across the state, which are experiencing their highest hospitalization numbers many doctors have ever seen.

“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.

The Washington Post also reported Indiana is one of four states, along with Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, that are responsible for nearly half of the country's increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Tabor said the healthcare system is working together right now "as one health system." He said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's administration has been helping provide transportation and other resources when patients need to get from a healthcare system in a rural area to one in an urban area.

"So right now everyone's working hand in hand to get patients to the right place at the right time," Tabor said. "It's difficult, and it's likely going to get more difficult, but we're really working together."

Should the state do more?

Micah Pollak, an associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest, told WRTV last week that state and local leaders need to be “shouting from the rooftops” about the need for people to get vaccinated.

Pollak noted that the toll on health care workers is already being felt more this year due to the high number of retirements and departures in the industry.

“I think we’re close to not being able to fit them in where people are in the hospital as it is, and we’re 1,000 people below where we were last winter,” Pollak said. “I think a lot of people are disconnected from the health care system. If they realized how precarious the health care system is right now, that might change things.”

How do we get out of this mess?

Weaver said he did not want to delve into politics with the mask mandate, but he encouraged people to continue wearing masks while in crowds and get vaccinated.

“The best thing for this is get vaccinated for all that are eligible, which is most people anybody 5 and up these days,” Weaver said. "Please get vaccinated.”

Tabor said the best thing for people to do is to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu.

"Take all the steps that you can to help protect yourself, because not only will it help you, but it will help someone in your family, neighbor, a friend," Tabor said. "It'll ensure that if something happens to them, which may not be COVID, just an accident, they slip and fall. It's going to help relieve the strain on the system so that they can get the best care and the care that they're used to getting here in Indiana from our hospitals."

WRTV Senior Digital Content Producer Andrew Smith contributed to this report.