INDIANAPOLIS — Amid another deadly surge of COVID-19, business and hospital leaders around the state held a virtual press conference appealing to unvaccinated Hoosiers.

As the overworked and burned-out health care workforce finishes a second year of nonstop, high-stress work battling the coronavirus, hospital administrators warned that the staffing crisis would impact the state’s ability to respond to future emergencies and disasters.

“Tornadoes? I worry about our staffing capabilities to be able to handle something like that. God forbid we should ever get into that situation,” said Rob McLin, the president and CEO of Good Samaritan Hospital in Vincennes. “I’m begging everyone within earshot to get vaccinated.”

Brian Tabor, the CEO and president of the Indiana Hospital Association, shared the hospitalizations for COVID-19 were 90% of Indiana’s peak from earlier this year, before vaccines against the virus were widely available.

“We’re here today to make a new plea to everyone to do their part so that the health care system can operate as normal,” Tabor said. “The vast majority of the patients that we see hospitalized for COVID … are unvaccinated patients.

“We know that vaccination is safe; it’s effective. We encourage all Hoosiers to get vaccinated and boosted immediately.”

Adding to the strain, Hoosiers’ overall health declined during the pandemic, partially due to those who might have delayed care because of COVID-19 concerns. For Hoosiers with non-COVID health concerns, their deteriorating health means they arrive sicker at the hospital and stay longer.

Tabor said hospitalizations had increased 32% since the beginning of December and 149% since mid-November. Less than 13% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds are available.

Kevin Brinegar, the president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, shared anecdotes from companies around the state struggling to meet their staffing requirements. One telecommunications company didn’t have enough staff to keep stores open, and a manufacturer cut down production because of team absences related to COVID.

“It has become increasingly clear that a vaccinated workforce is absolutely essential to Indiana’s future economic health,” Brinegar said. “Many Hoosier businesses can’t afford to have another COVID outbreak.”

Brinegar said his organization would work with companies to establish free vaccine clinics onsite with a 15-person threshold and coordinate PCR testing with Patients Choice Laboratories in Indianapolis.

Scott Davison, the chairman, president and CEO of OneAmerica in Indianapolis, said that his company — which helps companies file life insurance and disability claims — had seen death claim rates rise.

“Deaths rates are up 40% over what they were pre-pandemic (in the third quarter of 2021),” Davison said, emphasizing that not all deaths are COVID-related. “What the data is showing us is that the deaths that are being reported as COVID deaths greatly understate the actual death losses among working age people.”

Additionally, long-term disability claims have spiked, possibly related to either long-term COVID symptoms or the consequences of delaying care during the pandemic.

“For OneAmerica, we expect the cost of these are going to be well over $100 million,” Davison said. “Those costs will trickle to other employers over time because premiums are starting to go up and will cost more for employers.”

In turn, employees could expect insurance costs to rise because of increases for their employers.

Davison said employees voiced concerns about working near unvaccinated coworkers and pushed for company-wide vaccine uptake.

“We’ve had to make the hard decision to require vaccinations,” Davison said. “We feel if we don’t require vaccinations, we’re really going to struggle to attract the type of people that want to work in our company.”

Countering false claims made by politicians in the state legislature and the Attorney General, hospitals said vaccine mandate impacts on their staffing paled in comparison to unvaccinated COVID-19 caseloads and burnout.

McLin said they’d lost 19 employees out of 1,800, and just two had been nurses who would impact patient care.

“So the commentary about that being the reason for staffing issues in patient care areas, anecdotally, is not what drove our staffing issues,” McLin said.

At Franciscan Health in Crown Point, they still struggled with staffing despite having no mandate for vaccination, according to Dr. Daniel McCormick, the president and CEO.

“This is a ratio problem … When you have a huge number of patients coming in, you can’t increase your (staff to patient) ratios fast enough,” McCormick said. “Even prior to the pandemic, we had a nursing shortage. I would say that in our experience it’s not because of a mandate. It’s because the huge number of patients are a burden on the healthcare system and that’s really just unsustainable.”

Tabor said that hospitals reported to his association had lost less than 1% of their workforce due to vaccine mandates.

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