‘Suffocating’: Doctors describe COVID-19 challenges faced by Indiana’s healthcare workers

Coronavirus

INDIANAPOLIS – Healthcare workers across Indiana are facing the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic as numbers continue to rise.

On Thursday, the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) reported a record number of daily positive coronavirus cases, bringing the statewide total to 196,176.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and ISDH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver provided a COVID-19 update Wednesday, discussing the burden of the pandemic on state healthcare workers.

“Our front-line healthcare workers are exhausted,” Box said. She explained burnout and staff shortages are impacted the healthcare system.

Dr. Graham Carlos, chief of internal medicine at Eskenazi Health and associate professor at Indiana University Medicine said, “As we move into the fall and winter we’re seeing community spread on the rise again based on the testing figures that we have, so I think I can speak on behalf of all healthcare workers around that we’re very anxious about this.”

“We certainly don’t want to see what we saw in the spring but the data is trending in that direction,” he said.

Dr. Mark Luetkemeyer, chief medical officer at Indiana University Health Methodist and University Hospitals, explained that healthcare professionals learned a lot from the initial wave of COVID-19 cases.

“The emotions and the angst from the first wave was because we knew we were encountering something that we haven’t seen before and we didn’t know what to expect and we knew there was a lot of concern about the availability of resources,” he said.

As cases are rising again, healthcare workers are busy keeping up with the high volume of patients, while at the same time seeing staff and healthcare workers also testing positive or exposed to the virus and needing to quarantine.

As of Thursday, Eskenazi Health reported 35 current inpatients with COVID-19. They also confirmed 20 team members were currently quarantined.

At Indiana University Health, a hospital spokesperson said 89 patients had confirmed, or suspicion of having COVID-19, while 64 team members were currently quarantined.

“You’re adding on now the surge of COVID, which is really challenging because our hospitals are full. Our healthcare workers are tired and if there’s one thing that keeps me up at night it’s the well-being of our staff and our healthcare workers,” said Luetkemeyer.

In addition to the case load healthcare workers are taking on, both doctors said coronavirus patients require more resources to help with their treatment and communication with family outside of the hospital.

“Staff such as respiratory therapists and critical care nurses need to staff up and often work more than they normally would because patients with respiratory failure has gone up on account of COVID,” said Carlos. “That is coupled with the fact that many staff have already put in a lot of overtime and have stepped up or stepped in to care for these patients so there is, in some respects, a feeling that people are worn out.”

“From a COVID standpoint it does require more resources to care for a patient with COVID because of the isolation not only from a physical barrier perspective but from a visitation perspective as well,” Luetkemeyer explained.

“So the moral distress I see more is that of the moral fatigue and difficulty in not having that connection that we normally do because we’re in and out of the room. It’s the isolating effect that’s really tough,” he said.

When asked about the personal impact of the coronavirus pandemic on healthcare workers, both doctors described the difficult realities faced every day.

”It is, in one word, suffocating. It feels like you can’t interact with families, you can’t give them a sense of how severe the virus is. Sometimes loved ones that can’t see their families feel isolated,” said Carlos. “It takes a tremendous toll on the patients, their families, and us in healthcare just because as people we’re made to be together and being community and the power of a hand hold, a visit is huge in terms of our wellness and our positive outlook on life.”

“Our team, our front-line providers have had some tough conversations with families about what COVID does to patients, to who makes it, who doesn’t, and despite all of the efforts that we do our best, a lot of these patients just don’t make it.  That’s really tough when you see somebody decline that rapidly,” said Luetkemeyer.

“We know that some of this is preventable with some simple practices.  We don’t want to see people dying. We are some of the last people to see them at their end of life and that’s tough,” he said.

Both providers urge people to follow social distancing guidelines and recommendations set forth by the CDC and healthcare professionals.

“I think it’s important for people to know while we have some treatments for the virus we don’t have a “cure,”’ said Carlos.

“We have some things that can knock down the inflammation. We certainly have things that can play a role but it’s not like antibiotics for a sinus infection where we can just whip it,” Carlos said. “We are still sometimes at the mercy of this virus and the toll it can take on the body, which is why we still see people succumbing to the virus every day in Indiana.”

“We can prevent spread of the virus through the measures we’ve talked about distancing, masking, avoiding large gatherings, handwashing,” he said.

ISDH is asking for help optimizing resources and preparing the healthcare workforce across the state of Indiana. They encourage and ask anyone who is a licensed healthcare worker and willing to volunteer or work to fill out a form on the department’s website.

The agency said by filling out the form, state and local employers can identify workers who may be able to help provide support relief to front-line healthcare workers amid the pandemic.

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