'Come and count them': Indiana hospital CEO addresses Todd Rokita's COVID numbers comment

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Indiana health care leaders and CEOs on Thursday pushed back at comments Attorney General Todd Rokita made during a recent televised interview in which he questioned the accuracy of the state's COVID-19 data and attributed hospital staffing shortages to vaccine mandates.

That is not the case, said Brian Tabor, president of the Indiana Hospital Association, though it's a claim raised time and time again about the health care sector.

"We struggling with capacity because of the high number of cases, and just the impact of COVID, and the general health care needs of Hoosiers," Tabor said during a virtual statewide press conference.

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He and the CEOs of Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes and Franciscan Health Crown Point dismissed the notion that vaccine mandates enacted by Indiana hospitals are driving their labor shortages.

They attribute labor shortages to health care workers taking a time out from the profession as they struggle with burn out stemming from a two-year long pandemic. Employees are moving into different areas of health care or leaving the profession all together, they said. They also invited Rokita to look at their data and count their COVID-19 patients himself.

"I can speak to our numbers and verify with PCR testing and I welcome the Attorney General, come and count them," said Dr. Daniel McCormick, Franciscan Health Crown Point president and CEO. "They're all here and we're not making them up."

Rokita, in a statement, said his comments are representative of questions many Hoosiers have.

"Transparency in the methodology, verification that the criteria for diagnoses is used uniformly throughout the healthcare system, and revealing the exact process for how numbers are created, submitted, and revised would go a long way in giving Hoosiers faith in the integrity of the data," he said. "Just this week, the CDC revised the number of Omicron variant cases, reducing it by a very large margin. Transparency, in fact, is how trust and confidence is earned."

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Indiana hospitals, physicians and nurses have grown increasingly vocal about strains the rising cases of COVID-19 among patients are putting on the health care system.

And, some hospital have enacted mandates that health care workers get vaccinated to prevent transmission of the coronavirus and outbreaks among staff caring for infected patients. Some Indiana Republican lawmakers have pushed back at such mandates.

In a Dec. 17 interview with anchor Todd Connor of WSBT 22 in South Bend, Rokita explained away pleas from Indiana hospitals about overwhelming work conditions due to the pandemic and another surge of COVID-19 patients.

"The reason hospitals are filling up is because their own health care workers won't come to work because of the mandates that have been put on them," Rokita said. "A year ago, we are calling them heroes, and now they're some kind of villains."

Screenshot from WSBT CBS 22's interview with Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, Friday, Dec. 17.
Screenshot from WSBT CBS 22's interview with Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, Friday, Dec. 17.

Connor pushed back, noting that health care workers have said they are burnt out and leaving the profession due to the workload and not vaccine mandates. In the same interview, Connor asked Rokita how he rationalized trying to stop people from having to get vaccinated when so many unvaccinated people are hospitalized for COVID-19.

The question was a reference to lawsuits Rokita filed against federal vaccine mandates on businesses. The attorney general responded by saying he did not believe the COVID-19 numbers being published because they have been politicized.

"I'm sorry about that, but this has been politicized," Rokita said in the exchange.

"From your state health people, huh?" Connor asks.

"This has been politicized since day one," Rokita responded.

On Wednesday, Gov. Eric Holcomb also criticized Rokita for publicly questioning the numbers, saying he was blindsided by the comments. Rokita, meanwhile, doubled down.

Not all hospitals have enacted vaccine mandates for employees. For those that have, less than 1% of staff left their jobs due the mandate, Tabor said. He added that in many cases some of those positions were not full time.

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In southern Indiana, Good Samaritan enacted a vaccine mandate, effective Nov. 1. Rob McLin, the hospital's president and CEO, said the hospital lost 19 of its 1,800 employees due to their refusal to abide by the mandate. Only two were nurses, he noted.

"The commentary about that being the reason for staffing issues and patient care areas, anecdotally is not what drove our staffing issues at Good Samaritan," McLin said.

On the northern side of the state, Franciscan Health Crown Point does not have a mandate and the hospital is still suffering from staffing shortages, Dr. Daniel McCormick, its president and CEO, said.

He explained the ordeal as a ratio problem that is unsustainable, saying that health care workers are leaving the field for a multitude of reasons unrelated to hospital vaccine mandates.

"When you have a huge number of patients come in, you can't increase your ratios fast enough," McCormick said. "Then you have nurses and people leaving the system at the same time. That's why there's a shortage."

With the omicron variant spreading, hospital and business leaders are urgently pleading with unvaccinated Hoosiers to get vaccinated. State health department officials have called Indiana's current situation bleak, noting that hospitalizations are up 700% since June.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks to about 100 supporters at the Indiana Statehouse who are against government mask mandates, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, during Organization Day.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks to about 100 supporters at the Indiana Statehouse who are against government mask mandates, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, during Organization Day.

Instead of contributing to a staffing shortage, vaccines have helped maintain staff during the pandemic, health care leaders said. Early in the pandemic, many nurses, physicians and others were exposed to the virus and had to quarantine for longer periods of time or felt ill, compounding staffing shortages present before the pandemic.

"The net impact of vaccines helps the healthcare industry. It protects our workers. it protects our most precious resource, our workers," he said. "It keeps them from being quarantined from falling ill so it actually helps our staffing levels."

Tabor said he could not speak to all Rokita's concerns about data, but he did say that Indiana hospitals systems work diligently with state health officials to report data on the number of COVID positive patients and ICU capacity.

"I believe all hospitals are reporting accurately," Tabor said.

Hospitals take the accuracy of data seriously, and everything reported to the federal government is shared with the state, Tabor said, adding everything is audited.

"Even back earlier in the pandemic, when there were distributions made to hospitals based on COVID load from the federal government to cover costs associated with the pandemic, all of those are audited," he sad. "They either have been audited — they will be audited — so there's a lot of oversight."

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The CDC does have requirements for how deaths are to be recorded and if COVID is a contributing factor. When all is said and done, Tabor bargains that COVID-19 will be undercounted rather than over counted.

At Good Samaritan, McCormick said infection control nurses verify which patients have been vaccinated.

"We manually look and see who's been vaccinated and who's been boosted. It's a labor intensive job, but we're tracking those numbers diligently, not only for my hospital but for our system and I suspect everybody else is," McCormick said. "I welcome anybody to come in and hand count my COVID numbers. I'd be happy to show them."

Contact IndyStar reporter Alexandria Burris at aburris@gannett.com or call 317-617-2690. Follow her on Twitter: @allyburris.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana hospital leaders push back on Rokita's comments on COVID data