Despite receiving help from the U.S. Navy and the Indiana National Guard, the state’s largest hospital system is still reeling to handle a growing swell of patients as COVID-19 continues to take staff out of commission and pack hospital beds.
Indiana University Health’s hospitals are now 120% over capacity, said Dr. Christopher Weaver, senior vice president and chief clinical officer, with more than 2,000 patients, 553 of whom are infected with COVID-19. During the peak of the 2020 fall surge, the health system treated just under 520 COVID-19 patients.
“We’re at the highest point we have been,” Weaver said. “All of our hospitals are stretched beyond prior belief.”
At this point in time IU Health has more patients than beds, said Dr. Michele Saysana, vice president for safety, quality and patient improvement and chief patient safety and Quality Officer.
COVID in Indiana: State limits COVID-19 rapid testing due to shortage
And, hospital officials fear the numbers will only grow in the coming weeks.
The situation is not that different at Ascension Health’s 20 hospitals across the state, said Terry Metzger, chief operating officer for that health system.
Ascension Health, which has 20 hospitals across the state, is also seeing more COVID-19 patients than at any other point in the pandemic.
“Our numbers are about as high as they have ever been,” Metzger said. “We reached our highest point Christmas Eve, Christmas Day of last year. We are at those numbers right now and it’s still climbing.”
More than 3,200 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, the Indiana Department of Health reported Tuesday. That’s more than at any time since mid-December of 2020.
Unvaccinated patients continue to make up the majority of hospitalized patients and the vast majority of those with severe cases, health experts across the state say, as they urge anyone eligible who is not vaccinated or boosted to get the shot.
What it looks like inside hospitals
Indiana National Guard teams are deployed in 12 out of the 16 IU Health hospitals, he said, with a 13th team scheduled to enter Riley Hospital for Children later this week as staff there also face an upswing in COVID-19 patients.
Riley Hospital currently has about four times as many children admitted with COVID-19 as it did at any other point in the pandemic, said Dr. Elaine Cox, vice president and chief medical officer for Riley Children’s Health. More than half of the children that have recently been hospitalized with COVID-19 have spent time in the intensive care unit and 40% have required a ventilator to breathe.
“There are more of them and they are sicker,” she said.
Currently Riley is treating 32 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, nine of whom are on the maternity unit, Cox said. Eleven of the pediatric patients are in the pediatric intensive care unit and seven are on ventilators.
The emergency department has also been swamped with COVID-19 patients, she said. Each day, Riley’s emergency department staff test between 120 to 140 young patients for COVID-19. About 75 to 85% of those tests come back positive and the staff must decide which of those patients require hospitalization and which can recuperate at home.
Unlike IU Health’s adult hospitals, Riley does not have as much flexibility to move beds around to accommodate additional patients, Cox said. Technically the hospital is at 87% capacity but some of the open beds include newborn intensive care units that can only accommodate babies. Meanwhile, the hospital has seen flu cases rise along with other respiratory infections.
To adjust, Riley has suspended elective surgeries and cut back on other services such as art and music therapy.
At IU Health Methodist, the largest hospital in the IU Health system, about 200 of the 800 patients are COVID positive, said Liz Linden, vice president and chief nursing officer, for the IU Health Adult Academic Health Center Hospitals.
Recently Methodist added 35 intensive care unit beds to meet demand and has adjusted its care model to help fill gaps when staff shortages arise.
While in the past IU Health had tents set up outside Methodist Hospital to handle potential overflow, hospital staff have found alternative ways to create additional space to house patients, using conference rooms and ambulance bays to house patients.
IU Health is also postponing non-emergent procedures to prioritize space and staff for those in need of more urgent care, Weaver said.
Patients wait in ER hallway for beds
On some days when hospital beds have been full, 40-plus patients have been waiting in the Methodist emergency room hallway for beds, said Autumn Bowman, a Methodist emergency room nurse.
That takes away open beds in the emergency room and as many as 50 patients have been waiting there, about 30 more than the hospital would see on a typical day. The U.S. Navy nurses deployed to the hospital in late December to help out have proved instrumental in helping to treat those patients while they wait, she said.
“There are times where we have, since our doors never close, where we would need to treat patients in the hallway,” Bowman said.
Although the hospital has not been testing positive patients to determine what coronavirus strain has caused their illness, most of those hospitalized right now at IU Health's facilities appear to have been infected with the delta variant, Weaver said.
Ascension Health has also modified space to accommodate more COVID-19 patients, Metzger said. The system’s Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital has not yet felt the crunch as acutely as have the hospitals that treat adults.
One problem has been the large number of staff members out on paid leave because they tested positive for COVID, he added.
“That is amplifying the challenge for us now,” he said.
Under current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, people who test positive, even if they are asymptomatic, must isolate for a minimum of five days.
Despite all the challenges, hospital staff say, they are still open for business for those who require medical treatment of any sort.
“If you’re sick and need care, please come see us,” Weaver said.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU Health hospitals struggle to meet increasing COVID patient demand