SURGE PROTECTORS: County, state prepare for peak COVID-19 patients in coming weeks


HANCOCK COUNTY — The motto at Hancock Regional Hospital these days is “planning for the worst, hoping for the best,” says Craig Felty, the hospital’s vice president, chief nursing officer and chief operating officer.

While a statewide stay-at-home order aims to flatten a peak of COVID-19 patients as much as possible, health experts anticipate some kind of pinnacle in the coming weeks. Hancock County’s hospital is preparing for it by adding dozens of beds, securing more equipment, furnishing spaces with extra medical capabilities and shuffling some staff.

Dr. Jennifer Sullivan, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said last week that the state’s COVID-19 patient surge is expected to begin soon and peak in mid-April to mid-May. She added that estimation is based on models her colleagues along with researchers in the state have prepared.

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Steve Long, president and CEO of Hancock Regional Hospital, said in a video posted on the hospital’s website in March that the facility has about 80 inpatient rooms and about 100 outpatient spaces. The hospital is adding to that just in case.

Felty told the Daily Reporter that the hospital’s geropsychiatric unit is no longer seeing patients and that it’s being turned into a COVID-19 unit capable of holding 16 patients. Some construction was conducted to give the unit negative pressure, which will keep air from escaping, Felty continued. He added the hospital hopes to have the unit ready by this week.

“That will be our main unit for taking care of COVID patients,” Felty said. “…This will likely be patients on ventilators, patients who need advanced care.”

Felty said the hospital has rented several ventilators from a third-party company and has made arrangements with other partners to borrow ventilators if needed. He added the hospital would be able to have a total of 30 to 35 ventilators.

Gateway Hancock Health, which opened last September at Mt. Comfort Road and Interstate 70, will be used for potential coronavirus patient overflow. Felty said the hospital leased 50 beds from a hospice supply company that have been set up on the second floor of the new medical facility. Oxygen has also been piped up to the second floor.

“That would be a way-down-the-line type of a surge,” Felty said. “…That will be for overflow of patients that we don’t have room for in the hospital. It’s going to take a lot of patients before we would need that.”

He hopes all the extra space won’t be needed.

“We’re hoping we don’t have to use them, but we still want to be ready just in case things go the way we kind of think they’re going to go,” he said.

Felty said if it gets so bad that the hospital’s main campus and Gateway couldn’t contain the surge, wellness centers in Greenfield and McCordsville, both of which are currently closed, could be used.

The hospital has treated a relatively small number of cases so far.

The hospital initially planned on bringing in employees of some of its other organizations, like home health and hospice care, to help with the COVID-19 surge. But hospital leaders are finding those employees need to stay where they are because many families are taking their loved ones out of extended-care facilities and bringing them home, Felty said.

Good backup options still exist, however.

“We have a lot of medically trained individuals that might not be in direct patient-care roles,” Felty said, adding they’re receiving refresher training on how to take care of patients in a hospital setting.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an executive order on March 30 temporarily authorizing certain individuals to provide health care who are not currently licensed to do so. Weaver said thousands have stepped up to volunteer in that regard.

Felty said several have reached out to Hancock Regional Hospital with such offers, including retired health care professionals. The hospital is keeping a list and will reach out to them if they’re needed, he added.

“It just all depends on how high the scale gets here,” he said.

Sullivan said last week that Indiana’s baseline number of critical care hospital beds is 1,432. As of March 30, hospitals had taken steps to increase the number of critical care hospital beds to 1,940.

“Overall, the state’s plan is to double the number, if needed, by taking existing noncritical-care hospital beds, recovery rooms, operating rooms and outpatient facilities, turning them into critical-care hospital beds,” according to a news release from Holcomb’s office.

Indiana’s baseline number of ventilators is 1,177. As of March 30, hospitals had identified another 750 that can be used for critical care patients.

“Overall, the state’s plan is to double the number, if needed, by repurposing ventilators from operating rooms, ambulatory care centers, EMS and the Indiana National Guard,” according to the news release.

Like Felty, Sullivan said that she hopes not all of the surge preparations will be needed.

“My sincere desire is that much of this will go unused as all of you continue Gov. Holcomb’s directive to Hunker Down Hoosiers,” she said. “However, there is absolutely a possibility that the best surge plans and social distancing measures will still require us to find alternative resources to care for large numbers of patients, and we are planning those levels of surge as well.”

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Hancock Regional Hospital has taken several steps to prepare for a potential onslaught of COVID-19 cases:

–It has converted its geropsychiatric unit into an overflow unit for 16 patients.

–It has acquired 50 beds and placed them at Gateway Hancock Health. A large second-floor space at the new medical center Mt. Comfort Road and Interstate 70 would be used for a “way-down-the-line type” of surge.

–It has rented several ventilators from a third-party company and has made arrangements with other partners to borrow ventilators if needed.

–It has heard from several former health-care professionals, including retirees, who could step in to help if needed.