GOSHEN — Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, a new variant, omicron, has developed.
Meanwhile, the delta variant is still spreading rapidly in Michiana.
Both Goshen and Elkhart General hospitals are impacted by increasing numbers of COVID patients. Goshen Hospital issued a press release Thursday saying they have 41 COVID patients, with 35 of those being unvaccinated. Overnight, those numbers increased to 46 patients with 40 being unvaccinated.
These are numbers that have not been seen since November 2020, hospital officials said.
Hospital leaders urged the public to get vaccinated, or at least wear a mask in public, to social distance and take precautions against spreading the virus.
As of Friday, Elkhart General had 64 COVID patients, with 12 of those being in the critical care unit. Memorial Hospital of South Bend had 73.
Statistically, 1.6% of COVID patients die. Elkhart County has had a total of 546 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Dr. Michelle Bache, vice president of medical affairs for Elkhart General Hospital, stated in an email, “As of (Friday) there have been 211 patients who have died in Elkhart General from COVID. I expect this number to climb rapidly through December due to the dramatic increase in our community spread.”
“We are still seeing a high number of deaths and many of these individuals are younger than they were a year ago,” she added. “It is very tragic.”
Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait shared her thoughts.
“I’m really concerned,” Wait said.
Wait said she is getting reports of employees at factories coming into work sick. So she’s reaching out to employers.
“HR department after HR department are saying this is the most amount of cases they’ve seen since the pandemic began,” she said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, people were taking precautions and wearing masks, she said. Vaccinations started at the last part of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.
Now as delta is spreading, hospitalizations are increasing and people aren’t taking the same precautions.
Wait said of hospital admissions there is a 9:1 ratio of unvaccinated vs. vaccinated.
“It’s still the unvaccinated getting sick the most,” she said.
Nearly 60% of Elkhart County’s population is unvaccinated and likely not wearing masks, she said, adding “It’s very scary to think what’s going to happen here.”
And she doesn’t believe northern Indiana’s COVID numbers will plateau for about a month.
“Usually you can kind of get a feeling that things are plateauing, but that isn’t there,” Wait said.
The Elkhart County Health Department has managed to keep two free testing sites open, which isn’t the case for all counties in the state. Those are at the Center for Healing and Hope in Goshen and at the Elkhart Fire Department. They do rapid and PCR tests; however, Wait said, the county is running low on rapid tests. There are plenty of PCR tests, which take 24 hours to get results back.
All of the COVID at this point in Elkhart County is the delta variant, though it’s not just Elkhart County the delta variant is affecting.
“Across the state they are seeing this dramatic increase,” Wait said, adding that northern Indiana, though, is “hands-down” the worst in the state. “We’re just not in a good place and I fear for what the hospitals are going to be like. It’s worrisome.”
At the local testing sites, the rate of people testing positive is at 30% currently.
Wait said the sites have never seen that high rate of positivity. She said back when COVID was considered bad, the rates were 20% to 25% at testing sites.
“But we have gone above and beyond that now,” she said.
Local hospitals continue to be on ambulance diversion throughout northern Indiana and lower Michigan.
“We don’t even have that relief valve of regional hospitals to share the burden with,” Wait said. “Everyone is bursting at the seams.”
Because of that, she said, emergency room beds are being used by inpatients.
“If you come to the emergency room, just your wait time, just to get into an ER room bay is taking an entire day,” Wait said. “There’s no turnaround, because there aren’t enough beds to turn around.”
She explained that earlier this week, Goshen had 12 inpatients in their ER.
“That leaves a very limited beds for actual ER patients,” she said. “So this is the time where we are going to hear the horrible stories of people dying in the halls. ... It’s coming. It’s going to happen. We’re going to hear them.”
Dr. Bach writes in her email: “There has been a huge impact on the Emergency Department due to our inability to move patients from the ED into an inpatient bed if they require admission. Despite opening overflow areas we still have more demand than capacity. Most days at least 50% of our ED has been filled with inpatients waiting to move. This makes it difficult to care for the new patients who continue to arrive. Waiting times are very long and care is being delivered in hall beds and even the waiting room. The ED was on ambulance diversion for all but a few hours in November but continued to receive patients due to the fact that all other hospitals were also on diversion. This definitely impacts the care we are able to deliver.”
Vaccination and boosters are available in multiple locations across the county, from pharmacies, health department sites and doctor’s offices.
With only 43.3% of Elkhart County vaccinated, the hardest thing for Dr. Wait is to understand is the distrust, as the notion that people who think the medical community is lying or trying to scare the general public about the virus and vaccine is incomprehensible to her.
“I think what’s also amazing to me is that 7.8 billion doses of the vaccine have been giving worldwide,” Wait said. “What number do we have to hit for you to consider that this vaccine is safe and effective? What will satisfy people that this vaccine is not going to kill you?”
Vaccines have been in people’s arms for more than a year and a half.
“I’m not sure what the length of time it is to make people feel better,” she said. “Most vaccines are only studied for two months. Honestly, most all adverse effects for vaccines have been identified at two months. That’s why the trials only go to about month two. If you look at vaccines across the board, we’ve seen (effects) by two months. These three COVID vaccines we have were studied for three.”
Concerning the misinformation and distrust, Bache shared input by email.
“The attitudes and behaviors of some individuals have been very difficult for our staff endure, at a time when they are stretched thin and at their breaking point,” she wrote. “We have visitors who refuse to wear masks and are otherwise confrontational to the staff. Last year the hospitals felt the support and gratitude of the community. It is emotionally challenging.”
THE NEW VARIANT
Omicron, the new variant, is still too new to know how concerned people should be.
“Time will tell,” Dr. Wait said, adding that what people need to know is if the vaccines can protect people or not from the variant.
If not, she said, then what will happen if people refuse to wear masks or social distance?
“If it’s going to be just as deadly or just as significant, that is a huge concern,” Wait said. “So this peak or this delta wave that we are in now, it will go down. The question is when is that peak going to happen. And once that finishes how long till the new variant comes around and peaks.”
Bache shared some additional concerns.
“It is too early to say much about the omicron variant,” Bache wrote. “The current delta surge locally is our biggest concern at the current time. We should all know what to do by now to help stop the spread: get vaccinated, wear a mask, get tested when you have symptoms. Until these measures are more universally adopted by the public we will continue to have spikes that overwhelm and threaten to cripple our hospitals.”