INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — State health and hospital leaders warned Wednesday that Indiana could be facing months more of the surging coronavirus infections that have already started to overwhelm hospitals.
The public must take precautions such as wearing masks and avoiding gatherings with those outside their households more seriously to slow the COVID-19 spread, those leaders said during a briefing with Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Hospital executives said outpatient surgeries and screenings were being postponed so staffers could be reassigned to help handle the steep increase in coronavirus patients.
“We know we are up for a challenge here in the next few weeks to few months,” said Dr. Mark Luetkemeyer, the chief medical officer for IU Health’s Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. “We’re readying ourselves to be as prepared as possible but ... we can’t keep this up for a long time.”
Nearly a quarter of Indiana’s counties are listed in the highest-risk category and Wednesday’s state health department update showed a 60% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past two weeks.
Health officials also reported updated death totals from the past few days, raising Sunday’s COVID-19 death toll to at least 52, pushing it past the previous daily high of 50 set during the initial surge in April.
Indiana has recorded 322 virus-related deaths in the past week alone.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box warned that the state is “going to continue to see our cases and our deaths skyrocket” if residents don’t take the right measures.
“We are on an exponential growth curve right now and we do not expect it to turn around quickly,” Box said. “In the next several weeks, we will continue to see cases climb, individuals hospitalized and, unfortunately, more deaths.”
Conditions inside hospitals nationwide are deteriorating with the coronavirus surge, leading some governors and mayors to issue tougher measures such as limits on gatherings and restricting the hours and capacity of some businesses.
Indiana’s rates of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths began a steep increase just after Holcomb lifted most restrictions on businesses and crowds in late September.
In that time, Indiana’s coronavirus hospitalizations have jumped 300% to a pandemic high of 3,040 patients as of Tuesday, and its seven-day rolling average COVID-19 deaths has jumped from 10 a day to 41, just short of the state’s peak in late April.
Holcomb has kept a statewide mask order in place since July, but not until last week did he reinstate crowd limits based on county risk levels while largely leaving enforcement to local officials.
Holcomb, who went into quarantine Tuesday and was awaiting testing after coronavirus exposure from infected security staff, said by phone that the virus spread was an outcome of some people “pretending” that wearing masks and social distancing don’t work.
“We know going into the next 30, 60 days that we need to do more of this, not less,” Holcomb said.
Memorial Hospital in South Bend has added 10 intensive care beds beyond its normal capacity because of additional COVID-19 patients, said Sarah Paturalski, the hospital’s vice president of nursing services.
That hospital and others are worried about not having enough health care workers to care for the quickly growing number of severely ill patients.
“Not only are we in a surge plan, we are already rationing care,” Paturalski said.
The state health department listed 21 of Indiana’s 92 counties in the highest of its four risk levels for coronavirus spread, up from nine last week.
They include northwestern Lake County, Indiana’s second-most populous, and Fort Wayne’s Allen County.
Officials listed 70 counties in the next-highest risk level and none received the lowest rating.
In early October, the state’s risk map only placed nine counties in the two greatest risk categories.
Those ratings are based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of tests confirming COVID-19 infections.