ELKHART — Hospitals in Elkhart County on Tuesday said their struggle to care for patients under the weight of COVID-19 has become desperate and health offiicals urged the community to take action.
Elkhart General and Goshen Health both reported near-record hospitalizations and at-capacity intensive care units because of the coronavirus.
They said surgeries and screenings are being postponed for patients in need because health care systems are overwhelmed.
Goshen Health on Tuesday reported the highest number of COVID-related deaths in its facility in a single month since the pandemic began.
Health care workers are exhausted and discouraged, said Dr. Michelle Bache, vice president of medical affairs at Elkhart General Hospital.
“As you know, we’ve been pretty stretched with our COVID situation since late fall,” Bache said. “Recently that has accelerated.”
Residents testing positive for COVID are flooding into urgent care facilities and testing sites, and into the hospital’s emergency department.
“This is putting tremendous pressure on our ability to deliver other sorts of care,” she said.
The intensive care unit’s 23 beds are full so if a patient “codes” or comes to the hospital with a trauma, there are no ICU beds. Statewide, only about 10 percent of ICU beds are available so transferring patients is extremely limited, she said. And the impact extends beyond the emergency room and intensive care units.
“We’re canceling open heart surgeries, we’re canceling surgeries for people who need valve replacements, we’re canceling surgeries for patients who have cancer, and not because those aren’t very important surgeries but because we have patients crashing in our ER and crashing in our hospital who, if we don’t do something for them, they will die.”
Herself a practicing emergency room physician, Bache said she worked an ER shift Monday and reports that the surge that has spread across the country and then Indiana is upon Elkhart County.
“The amount of COVID patients I cared for was higher than it has been since our peak back in 2020,” she said. “It’s definitely here. We’re seeing positivity rates from our tests that are unprecedented.”
Most of those with the worst illness are unvaccinated. Although a growing number of those who have been vaccinated are testing positive, their symptoms are much more mild.
Despite the breakthrough cases, Bache said, the vaccines “are still incredibly useful at preventing hospitalizations and preventing deaths.”
Less than 45 percent of county residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. That compares with about 55 percent statewide and 65.9 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bache said the pressure on the health system is likely to get worse before it gets better.
“What’s incredibly heart-breaking is that the team is just weary beyond belief trying to work through this holiday period when a lot of people are out trying to get some down time and be with their families, and our teams are here working harder than they ever have,” she said, “with no end in sight. “
The number of patients who died of COVID-19 at Goshen Hospital in December was 25, the highest number of patients to die in any month of the pandemic so far, health officials said Tuesday.
“We are heart-broken for all the families who have lost their loved ones to this pandemic,” said Dr. Dan Nafziger, Goshen Hospital chief medical officer and infectious disease specialist. “It doesn’t get any easier for us to lose the patients we’re doing our best to care for.”
The number of COVID-19 patients at Goshen Hospital was high the last two months of 2021 and is expected to remain high through January, due to holiday gatherings, low vaccination rates and low mask use in the community, he said.
“We continue to stand by vaccination as the best way to reduce the likelihood of hospitalization,” Nafziger said. “Wearing masks when indoors is also important and reducing your exposure to indoor events when you might be in close quarters with people outside your household. This will be critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the upcoming weeks. Also, if you do get sick, stay home and get tested.”
The hospital, in a release Tuesday, issued an urgent plea:
“Please get vaccinated, get boosted and keep your COVID-19 risks low. It will take the work of the entire community to fight back this virus, decrease hospitalizations and lower COVID-19 death rates.”
Bache also urged residents to get vaccinated and to get a booster shot if they are vaccinated. She said anyone with even mild symptoms, such as a runny nose or sore throat, should be tested and then isolate. Given the level of community spread, such symptoms are likely the result of COVID, she said, and will result in further infections.
She also asked everyone to wear masks in public places.
“It’s incredibly dangerous right now to be out in the community without a mask,” she said. “And with the holidays and schools coming back to class, we’re just setting ourselves up for a bad situation.”