Kristina Box

Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana health commissioner, said Wednesday that COVID-19 cases are expected to continue to rise. Photo by LaMonte Richardson, TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb’s weekly COVID-19 briefing had somber tone as representatives from three Indiana hospitals described the toll growing hospitalizations and deaths are having on healthcare workers and their communities.

The governor’s press conference was led by Dr. Kristina Box, the state’s health commissioner, and Dr. Lindsay Weaver, the department’s chief medical officer, because Holcomb had to join by telephone. He and his wife, Janet, are in quarantine because members of their security staff tested positive for COVID-19. They will be tested at the end of the week.

Box and Weaver invited representatives from three Indiana hospital systems to underscore the impact that the pandemic is having across the state. Box noted that hospitalizations hit a new high Wednesday at 3,040 Hoosiers. The state has set a record for hospitalization in 14 of the last 16 days.

The state also reported 60 new deaths and 6,143 newly reported cases Wednesday, for a total of 4,830 deaths and 268,222 positive cases. The state’s seven-day positivity rate is at 12.2%.

Sarah Paturalski, vice president of nursing and clinical services at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, said the hospital is seeing at least one death each day, and the hospital’s vow to not let anyone die alone means that family members have been able to come say goodbye. But other times, moments after working to save a patient, hospital staff will hold the hand of the person who passes.

“Death and dying has always been part of healthcare. We’ve dealt with that the entire time, we signed up for these careers. But death in the numbers we’re seeing with COVID is not what we’re used to,” Paturalski said. “We’re seeing death at a much higher rate than we’ve ever experienced before, and it is affecting every single layer of our organization.”

Paturalski explained that losing patients to the disease leaves a mark on every employee at the hospital, all the way down to the security guard that has to escort them to the morgue.

“We are no longer the front line of attack for this,” Paturalski said. “We are the last line.”

Dr. Eric Fish of Schneck Medical Center in Seymour said that a lot of staff at the rural hospital have chosen to go into outpatient care or leave the profession completely because of the strain of COVID-19. The hospital is also experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment and medications.

Fish said that workers in various departments usually not caring for patients — such as regulatory compliance, risk and safety, and information technology — have been deployed to work on the front lines of the hospital. The demand for patient care still outweighs the capacity of the staff at Schneck Medical Center, he added.

The is some hope as two pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Moderna, have announced vaccines that are about 95% effective.

Weaver said some vaccines may be available to frontline health care workers and people at higher risk by the end of the year. But they aren’t expected to be widely available for the general public until late spring or summer 2021.

With Thanksgiving coming up, Box advised families to celebrate safely using CDC guidance, with the safest option being to limit activities to those in your household.

“To be frank, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others,” Box said. “You can still celebrate by having a small dinner with your immediate family. For the first time, there’ll only be five at my dining room table.”

The state also has also released Thanksgiving guidance, ranking activities from low to high risk.

Box had additional guidance for college students, as many colleges will be sending students home for the semester once Thanksgiving break begins and case numbers are rising in the 18-30 age group. According to the Indiana State Department of Health, 19% of cases in the state are of individuals aged 20-29.

“Behave as if you have COVID, or have been exposed,” Box said. “When you get home, plan to spend those 14 days in quarantine, even in your own home. Wear a mask, even in your own home.”

Box said she had phone calls with colleges across the state Tuesday and offered to give the colleges rapid testing cards to test students before they return home. More than a dozen colleges and universities have expressed interest in the cards and Box said the department expects that number to grow.

“Please, don’t head out to the bars or hang out with all of the friends you haven’t seen for months,” Box said. “You need to keep those social bubbles small.”

The next virtual COVID-19 press conference will be at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25. Holcomb said he hopes to appear by video.

Taylor Wooten is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College students.

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