Sick employees, influx of patients strain hospitals

At a local hospital, a spike in flu cases in recent weeks has led to an influx of additional patients and nurses and doctors working overtime to treat them.

Johnson Memorial Health officials estimate that they’ve diagnosed about 10 percent more people with the flu than the same time last year, a number that means longer waits in the emergency room for those seeking care. But with one in four employees having caught the flu as well, hospital employees are working overtime to make sure they have enough staff to treat all the patients who come in and run the Franklin hospital.

Johnson Memorial Health and two other local hospitals, Community Hospital South and Franciscan Health Indianapolis, say this year’s flu season has been more severe than the past several years, an assessment backed up by state data.

According the Indiana State Department of Health, which tracks the number of cases across the state, this flu season is on track to be the worst since at least the 2013-14 season. Last week, the percent of patients coming to hospitals with an influenza-like illness was 5.6 percent, a one-week figure higher than any point in the past four years, data from the department of health showed.

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One concern is that the flu vaccine given out this year could be less effective than in prior years, said Anita Keller, the nursing director at Johnson Memorial Health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the effectiveness of the flu vaccine typically ranges from about 40 to 60 percent. In the past two flu seasons, that number was 48 and 39 percent. The CDC estimates that the effective rate this year will be around 40 percent, but could dip to as low as 30 percent against certain strains of the virus.

But getting the vaccine, even as late as January, is still important, Keller said.

“Anecdotally, what we are seeing is patients with the flu shot seem to have a higher immunity or seem to have less severe symptoms than patients who didn’t have the flu shot,” she said.

Since the latest flu season began at the end of 2017, a quarter of the employees at Johnson Memorial Hospital have caught the virus, Keller said. In a typical flu season, the hospital can expect to have 10 to 15 percent of its employees come down with flu. Flu shots are mandatory for employees, but the shots aren’t a guarantee they won’t still catch the virus, she said.

The increase in sick employees, who have to remain at home until they recover, combined with more patients means longer waits in the emergency room along with more nurses, doctors and hospital staff across all departments working overtime to ensure those patients can be cared for, Keller said.

“We have some pretty remarkable employees who have stepped up to the plate and worked extra hours,” she said. “This is a 24-hour-a-day operation. Every person who works here has an important role to keep this place going. If someone is off sick, it is someone else who has to pick up the work.”

In the emergency room, the most severe flu cases they come across are ones where a patient has another chronic illness, such as kidney or heart disease, that is exacerbated by the flu, Keller said. The combination of the flu with those conditions can mean those patients need to stay in the hospital longer to recover.

At Community Hospital South, the influx in patients has meant occasionally needing to divert someone to another one of their hospitals because of their beds are full, said Desi Tunny, the infection control nurse for the hospital. At times they’ve run low on testing supplies, but haven’t ever run out, she said.

To help prevent backlogs in emergency rooms, patients are being asked to first call their primary care provider or go to an urgent care clinic if their symptoms aren’t severe enough to require immediate attention, Franciscan Health spokesperson Joe Stuteville said.

One precaution local hospitals and nursing homes have taken is visitor restrictions, to help make sure anyone with signs of the flu or other contagious illnesses don’t come in contact with patients.

At Otterbein Franklin SeniorLife Community, for example, they’ve limited visitors to family members and required them to wear a mask and wash their hands, and are also limiting large group activities, including a planned visit by U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, Chief Executive Officer Keith Van Deman said.

These types of restrictions typically get put in place a couple of times a years, usually as a response after a few residents become sick, he said.

“We actually had a couple of positive flu cases and that was enough for us,” Van Deman said.

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Flu cases are on the rise in Indiana this year. Here’s a look at the percent of patients going to the hospital who have influenza-like illnesses each week since December:

Jan. 6;5.63%

Dec. 30;4.6%

Dec. 23;2.98%

Dec. 16;2.17%

Dec. 9;1.55%

Dec. 2;1.45%

Source: Indiana State Department of Health