The highly contagious omicron variant ushered in all-time high positivity rates and stretched the county’s testing capacity thin this week, while hospitals continued to struggle.
Long lines to test and get vaccinated at the Johnson County Health Department’s Compass Park site have tested patience for county residents on both sides of the line, said Betsy Swearingen, health department director.
The volume is so high and has remained high for so long that the health department recommends against getting an appointment. There isn’t enough room to create a separate line for people with an appointment, she said.
On any given day, the line stretches from the testing site at the event center to more than a block down Freemason Parkway. It can take two hours to get tested or vaccinated, she said.
During the month of December, the health department gave over 2,100 PCR tests and 2,500 vaccines, in addition to hundreds of rapid tests, department data show. That pace has continued this month and shows no signs of waning.
Despite the Indiana Department of Health closing rapid test availability to people over 18, the health department is still giving many of those and even more PCR tests. The volume of PCR testing has driven up the time to get results to about 72 hours, Swearingen said.
“We realize the system is flawed with making appointments and that people are having to wait in line with people who don’t have appointments. At this point we are seeing everyone on a drive-up basis,” Swearingen said. “It is not that we aren’t trying, it is just there is not enough space.”
People have grown impatient and lashed out at health department employees who are working as hard as they can. Employees are balancing the needs of those waiting in line and Compass Park residents who have had a testing site in their backyard for months, Swearingen said.
Others litter and relieve themselves in the yards of senior apartments near the site, Swearingen said. The problem is so severe the health department has rented a portable toilet for the site. Still, people have been spotted going on the grass, she said.
Swearingen is asking for understanding as the volume will likely remain elevated for some time, given the high transmissibility of the virus.
“We are offering the tests quickly as possible,” Swearingen said. “People need to dig deeply into their humanity.”
The health department’s site is only one of two that offers testing without an appointment, so many are forced to go to the site because pharmacies and doctor’s offices are solidly booked with testing appointments. The other walk-in site is a temporary site set up at the former site of Sawmill Woods Preschool in New Whiteland.
Omicron has also driven positivity rates up in the county and across the state. In Johnson County, the 7-day positivity rate is 28.4%, while the statewide rate is slightly lower at 27.8%. On Tuesday at the health department site, about 46% of people who took rapid tests were positive for COVID-19.
The positivity rate is up, and Johnson County set a new record high of new cases reported on Thursday, at 574. Cases have been lower in the days leading up to Thursday but were still higher with omicron than at any previous point in the pandemic.
It is unclear when Indiana will reach the peak of omicron, but models have suggested it might peak about now or in the next few weeks. However, the peak of deaths and hospitalizations lags behind the diagnosis peak by several weeks, so hospitals are likely to be full for most of the month, said Dr. David Dunkle, Johnson Memorial Health president and CEO.
Hospitalizations have reached record highs across the state this week, and Johnson Memorial has stayed level near record highs. There were 17 fighting COVID-19 at the hospital on Wednesday and Thursday, a slight decrease from Tuesday, when there were 20 patients, Dunkle said.
All but one of the patients in the intensive care unit Wednesday were COVID-positive, he said.
The hospital has remained on diversion for much of the week, staffing has remained short and the hospital has remained full. Though the hospital is still offering outpatient surgeries, staff have canceled surgeries that require a hospital stay because there are no beds open for in-patient recovery, Dunkle said.
One win this week is news that six Indiana National Guard soldiers assigned to the hospital will stay for at least another two weeks, Dunkle said.
Meanwhile, immediate care and family medicine practices operated by Johnson Memorial have become swamped with patients with upper respiratory symptoms, he said.
People struggling to find a test elsewhere have turned to doctor’s offices for testing and help to treat symptoms of whatever respiratory virus they have caught. Since the omicron variant presents similarly to a cold or the flu in many patients, especially those who are vaccinated, people are relying on their physicians for guidance, Dunkle said.
Despite the mild nature of the virus for many, hospitalizations remain high due to the sheer volume of those infected. As more are infected, the likelihood increases that an at-risk person can come in contact with the virus in spite of precautions.
Dunkle appealed to county residents to act with consideration for healthcare workers. Getting vaccinated and returning to more cautious practices like wearing masks and isolating while awaiting test results will help healthcare workers and slow the spread.
“I’m glad a lot of people aren’t touched by this, but inside the hospital it is chaos. It is like this across the state,” Dunkle said. “The numbers are high and people don’t seem to be concerned about it. But they should be.”
COVID-19 week to week comparison
COVID-19 data reported Dec. 30 to Jan. 5
Weekly cases: 68,250
Weekly deaths: 515
7-day positivity rate: 23.8%
Weekly cases: 1,920
Weekly deaths: 13
7-day positivity rate: 22.5%
COVID-19 data reported Jan. 6 to Jan. 13
Weekly cases: 80,026
Weekly deaths: 589
7-day positivity rate: 27.8%
Weekly cases: 1,986
Weekly deaths: 18
7-day positivity rate: 28.4%
Source: Indiana Department of Health