Packed Indiana Hospitals Turn to National Guard for Help As COVID Cases More Than Double

Health officials in Indiana reported about 2,750 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Wednesday, with Indiana University Health, the state's largest hospital system, calling on the National Guard to help lessen the burden on health care workers.

A current surge in cases in Indiana is quickly approaching pre-vaccine numbers. According to the Indiana Department of Health, an average of 30 people are dying from the virus per day.

IU Health said it contacted the National Guard because the strain on the workers at its 16 hospitals across Indiana "has never been greater." The Guard's six-person teams include two medics and four support staffers.

Brian Tabor, the Indiana Hospital Association's president, told the Associated Press the increased COVID-19 hospitalizations come at a time when hospitals are already flooded with people battling other illnesses.

The association reported Indiana reached its highest number of hospitalizations ever at about 12,000. This far exceeds Indiana's five-year average of 10,000.

"We're viewing this as an extremely serious situation inside the walls of hospitals, but it's not just a COVID issue," Tabor said. "What COVID is doing is kind of taking up the slack that's built into the system."

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Indiana hospitals are seeing their highest-ever overall patient counts amid a monthlong COVID-19 surge, and the state’s largest hospital system has enlisted National Guard assistance. Indiana Hospital Association President Brian Tabor speaks with reporters on March 2, 2020, at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Tom Davies, File/AP Photo

The current surge might not peak for another month, and hospitals are also seeing more patients with other serious illnesses at a time when they also face a crunch of health care workers, Tabor said.

The average Indiana hospital patient count has been about 10,000 over the past five years, with the previous peak of about 11,500 in early 2018 when Indiana faced a widespread flu outbreak. Indiana's total patient count is some 500 more than a year ago when the state was in the midst of its worst COVID-19 surge and about 3,400 people were hospitalized with the disease, the hospital association said.

The Indiana National Guard began offering its teams to hospitals earlier this year, with teams being dispatched in September to hospitals in Indianapolis, Evansville, Jeffersonville, Gary and Merrillville.

Indiana's COVID-19 hospitalizations are now higher than Indiana's summer surge that peaked in September and are approaching the pandemic peak reached in late 2020. The surge has also pushed up Indiana's average of COVID-19 deaths to more than 30 per day after it was below five a day in July.

Health officials have urged more people to get the COVID-19 vaccination shots as Indiana has the country's 10th lowest rate for fully vaccinated population at 51.1 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine rural counties scattered around the state have vaccination rates below 40 percent.

Dr. Paul Calkins, IU Health's associate chief medical executive, said the system has been delaying many scheduled surgeries as it faces the crush of more patients.

"Pretty much all of our emergency departments have people who are holding in them because there's no room in the hospital at the moment," Calkins said. "That means that people that come in with really any disease, particularly non COVID illness, they are going to be backed up. We're delaying a lot of surgeries, probably several thousand."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Indiana hospital
Indiana's hospitals are packed with patients as a recent COVID surge takes on pre-pandemic records. Above, a healthcare worker comforts a patient in the Covid-19 ward at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, on December 4, 2020. MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP/Getty Images