Columbus Regional Hospital is scrambling to reconfigure space and increase capacity in an effort to keep up with soaring coronavirus cases, rising emergency room visits and a deluge of patients with more complex conditions as officials brace for what they fear will be another tough winter.
The efforts, described by hospital officials as “a quest to find any and every bed available,” comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations at CRH jumped to 49 on Wednesday — the highest in nearly 11 months and an increase of 14 in just two days.
On Friday morning, one of the floors that CRH has designated for COVID-19 patients reached full capacity and staff were working to open up additional space as they anticipated more coronavirus patients needing admission as the day went on, hospital officials said.
Though overall hospitalizations have also risen, COVID-19 hospitalizations are chief among CRH’s concerns because they are largely vaccine-preventable and those patients often need to be monitored more closely than other patients and require more staff and equipment to alleviate their symptoms, hospital officials said.
Currently, COVID-19 is the single largest cause of hospitalization at CRH.
CRH has not needed to divert patients or suspend elective procedures. As of Friday morning, the hospital’s staffed occupancy rate stood at a little over 80%.
“It has been alarming,” CRH spokeswoman Kelsey DeClue said of the rapid rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations. “…We’ve had some pretty big jumps, especially over the last couple of days.”
The latest surge in case and hospitalizations in the Columbus area comes amid growing frustration among healthcare workers who feel dismayed that coronavirus hospitalizations at CRH are not that far off from the record set almost exactly a year ago — despite safe and effective vaccines being widely available.
The record, set Dec. 2, 2020, was 59 hospitalizations — just 10 more than this past Wednesday.
But with the holiday season in full swing, combined with pandemic fatigue, low vaccination rates in the Columbus area and dramatic increases in confirmed cases, “we could continue to see those numbers climb again,” DeClue said.
On top of that, CRH generally sees an increase in hospitalizations during the winter months for other reasons, including influenza and other respiratory viruses.
The mounting concerns have led CRH officials to encourage local residents — especially the unvaccinated — to reconsider traveling or large family gatherings during the holiday season.
“We’re not feeling like we’re anywhere out of the woods yet,” she said.
The local rise in cases and hospitalizations also comes amid a growing sense of unease as the world waits to learn more about the omicron coronavirus variant detected by South African authorities last week.
The emergence of the variant, which has prompted dozens of countries to restrict travel and take other measures, has caused some concern among local health officials who say that it is likely only a matter of time before it is detected in Bartholomew County.
The United States had reported at least nine cases of the variant as of early Friday afternoon.
It’s not known yet how deadly or contagious the omicron variant is or whether it can evade protection from vaccines. But the uncertainty surrounding the variant has raised concern among local health officials, particularly as they are already contending with another rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
But scientists in South Africa said Friday the omicron variant appears to be spreading more than twice as quickly as the delta variant, which until now has been believed to be the most contagious COVID-19 strain, The New York Times reported.
Experts say it could take weeks to fully understand the threat the omicron variant poses.
In the meantime, CRH officials say they have their hands full with the delta variant, which is responsible for almost all COVID-19 cases in Indiana, and are urging the roughly 32,000 eligible Bartholomew County who have yet to get vaccinated to get their shots.
“Delta is the big concern of the day,” said Dr. Slade Crowder, CRH vice president of physician enterprise operations and associate chief medical officer. “The delta variant is keeping us very busy. And unfortunately, the state and locally, we’re going in the wrong direction even without omicron.”