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COVID cases strain Lafayette hospitals again, as vax skeptics hold out
For staffs running on fumes, growing number of COVID cases among the unvaccinated have IU Health Arnett and Franciscan East pleading for a break, dusting off surge plans
On Friday, less than a week ago, medical staffers at Lafayette’s Franciscan Health campus on Creasy Lane looked at beds at capacity from all sorts of ailments and surgeries and then at the emerging number of COVID-19 cases bad enough to warrant hospital stays.
On that morning, Franciscan’s Lafayette facility had 10 COVID-19 cases, up from five a few days earlier. Dr. Daniel Wickert, vice president of medical affairs with Franciscan, said that wasn’t nearly close to the 70 or so the hospital had seen during the peak of the pandemic late last year into early 2021.
But for a staff running on fumes, some opting out of bedside roles and growing reluctant to shoulder extra shifts 18 months into the pandemic, Wickert said those five cases were taking their toll on a facility dealing with a rise in non-COVID upper-respiratory illnesses and catch-up on elective surgeries.
“I asked the question last Friday: We were at 10, what if we went to 20?” Wickert said Wednesday. “Could we handle that? The answer was, No. And in less than a week …”
By Wednesday morning, Franciscan had 16 positive cases requiring hospitalization, with another 13 suspected cases. Of those, nine patients were in the intensive care unit. Of those, four were on ventilators. How many of those are part of a nationwide wave in delta variant COVID-19 cases wasn’t clear, Wickert said.
But of those 36 actual or suspected cases, all but one patient was unvaccinated, Wickert said.
“Now we’re asking, Can we handle another 20?” Wickert said. “No. But we might have to. … We’re stressed over here.”
A few miles away at IU Health Arnett Hospital, Dr. Jim Bien, chief medical officer, tells a similar story. COVID-19 cases in the three to five range a few weeks ago are now 14 to 16 at the Lafayette hospital, Bien said.
“We can handle that, so it’s not an overwhelming number of COVID cases,” Bien said. “But I will say the patients we’re seeing are younger and they’re coming to us sicker, so the length of stay is longer. … Our people – people at both hospital systems – are just fatigued and worn out. Yes, I’m worried.”
According to an Associated Press report, Indiana’s COVID-19 hospitalizations were the highest they’d been since May 28, with 735 cases Monday. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 cases peaked in November, with more than 3,400 patients in Indiana, according to the AP.
That comes as the delta variant – described as an aggressive strain of the virus – is spreading and as vaccination rates among Hoosiers stagnate. More than 2.93 million Hoosiers age 12 and older – or 50.4 percent of the eligible population – had been fully vaccinated as of this week, according to state figures. State numbers put the statewide rate of vaccinations at just under 6,900 a week, as of Tuesday – down from a peak of 56,000 a week in April – according to the AP report.
Tippecanoe County – with an average of 29 cases a day over the past week, a number not seen since the start of May – was upgraded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to a “high’ level of community transmission, as of Wednesday, according to a CDC COVID tracker. Meanwhile, the county’s fully vaccinated number was at 55 percent of those 12 and older, as of Wednesday, according to the CDC.
“The trend is slowing down and has been since June,” Khala Hochstedler, Tippecanoe County Health Department administrator, said of vaccination efforts. “We currently now are seeing 15 to 50 per day (at the county clinic), which is much slower than we were before.”
Hochstedler said the county’s new COVID Mobile clinics at events in the community have been getting good turnouts.
This week, Fox 59 reported that Indianapolis EMS was contending with at least 10 Indy-area hospitals that were on diversion at some point Monday. Diversion means hospitals aren’t in a position to take patients from ambulances. Hospitals there chalked up part of the problem to staffing shortages among nurses and other positions.
Bien and Wickert described similar situations at Lafayette hospitals, where full diversion has been in effect at some point nearly every day in recent weeks.
Wickert said Franciscan is looking for more nurses. The hospital recently raised its lowest wage from $12 to $15 for housekeeping, guest services and other entry-level positions in hopes of staffing up to meet demand, Lisa Decker, vice president of marketing for Franciscan, said. And Wickert said the hospital has been blessed by staff that has powered through all the juggling, maneuvering and physical and mental fatigue.
And the hospitals are preparing the way they did at the beginning of the pandemic, when they weren’t sure whether a surge would come or what it would look like if it did.
“Last year, when we saw what was happening in New York City, we made crazy plans,” Wickert said. “We’ve got to dust those off. …
“The health care system can only stand so much. And we don’t want to get there. We’re just trying to prevent the overwhelming of the system. That’s where it gets concerning.”
Bien and Wickert each pleaded for the other 45 percent of eligible Tippecanoe County residents to get vaccinated.
“Unfortunately, our solution to the pandemic, which has been vaccination, has not been taken up as quickly as it needs to be,” Bien said. “In the aggregate, people aren't going to get as ill as the 80-year-olds did a year ago. But there's a lot of unvaccinated individuals that are just the fuel for this next wave. … People are going to die. I don’t know how else to magnify the consequences.”
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