In an unusual show of solidarity, officials from several major Indianapolis-area health care systems held a joint press conference Monday afternoon to issue dire warnings about record numbers of COVID-19 cases and explain how their facilities and staffs are close to becoming overwhelmed.
“Local hospitals are facing a potential crisis,” said Dr. Michele Saysana, Indiana University Health’s vice president for quality and safety. “Our health systems are struggling to meet the needs of hospitalized COVID-19 patients,” as well as those for the many patients with other ailments.
Representatives of IU Health, Community Health Network, Franciscan Health Indianapolis, Eskenazi Health and Suburban Health Organization took turns sharing details about facilities packed to capacity, staffing shortages and the impact of intensive hands-on work and patient deaths on those who can work.
“Our nurses, doctors, therapists, chaplains and clinical support teams have all been dealing with COVID-19 patients for almost 10 months,” said Lee Ann Blue, chief nursing officer for Eskenazi Health. “This work is physically and emotionally exhausting.”
“Our team really, really is worried,” Blue said. “We’re seeing the second surge. … We’re seeing it. We’re living it, and we need to protect each other.”
The Indiana State Department of Health on Monday reported 5,050 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total during the pandemic to 430,401. New cases have topped 5,000 in 32 of the past 34 daily reports.
The state also reported 35 new deaths due to COVID-19, raising the cumulative total to 6,530. The state has reported more than 30 new deaths daily for 14 straight days. Statewide hospitalizations due to COVID-19 decreased from 3,108 on Saturday to 3,072 on Sunday, after hitting a record high in late November of 3,460.
Dr. Christopher Doehring, vice president of medical affairs for Franciscan Health Indianapolis, said the system is caring for more than twice as many COVID-19 patients as it was during the pandemic’s first wave and faces a shortage of beds in its in-patient and intensive care units. As a result, the system has been unable to accept transfers of patients from small outlying hospitals, as it normally would.
In the meantime, several hundred Franciscan staff members have been off-duty due to exposure to the disease—mostly from outside their work environments.
“I am pleased to report the spread of COVID from patients to staff members is almost unheard of now,” he said, due to safety measures. Other participants echoed this finding.
Still, the emotional impact on staff is intense.
“Our nurses are seeing COVID patents die, and this takes a very heavy toll on them,” said Jean Putnam, chief nursing officer for Community Health Network. “We’re now seeing this happen every day without cease.”
In particular, nurses struggle to see patients pass away without any family members allowed near them. “It’s not easy to see someone die without a family member with them,” she said.
Community is trying to use temporary nurses to relieve staffing shortages, “but the demand greatly exceeds supply,” Putnam said.
The health officials all represent the Indianapolis Coalition for Patient Safety, which was founded in 2003 to give Indianapolis-area hospitals a forum for sharing information about best practices for patient safety.
All of the participants on Monday shared a common message, pleading with members of the public to follow basic precautions such as wearing masks, avoiding gatherings with anyone outside their households, maintaining social distance, staying home they feel sick, and continuing to wash their hands.
In particular, they hoped to head off yet another surge of cases from people who come in close contact during the end-of-December holidays.
“We urge you to do everything you can to protect yourself and others,” Blue said.
Although Monday marked the arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccine at locations across the country, including Indiana, the local officials stressed that life would not return to normal for many months.
“While the vaccine offers light at the end of the tunnel, that tunnel is long,” Saysana said.
More than 50 Indiana hospitals and clinics are expected to receive a total of 55,575 doses of vaccine by the end of the week, and additional shipments are expected weekly.
Indiana has prioritized the first doses for frontline health care workers who provide direct patient care, as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities. There are about 400,000 health care workers in Indiana.