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Life inside an Indiana hospital receiving help from the National Guard

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Healthcare workers at Greene County General Hospital, in Linton, IN, are dealing with an influx of COVID-19 patients. The vast majority remain unvaccinated, officials say.

The Indiana National Guard has helped 30 hospitals struggling to keep up with COVID-19 demand since late last year.  

Providing both clinical and non-clinical support, the soldiers are temporarily relief for beleaguered staff nearly two years into the pandemic.

Across the state, the story is similar. Isolation units are full of unvaccinated patients with COVID-19.

“The spread of COVID throughout this community is the worst that we have seen so far,” Brenda Reetz, CEO at Greene County’s General Hospital said.

Most hospitals deal with more patients in the winter but, this year, the situation is far from normal. In addition to the surging inpatient census counts, Indiana hospitals are struggling to find workers. 

Greene County General is no exception.

“As a critical access hospital, we're not used to being at capacity all the time,” she said. “So we don't staff to be at capacity.”

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Critical access hospitals like Greene County General, in Linton, IN, are capped at a limited number of beds, and are not used to running full census counts. The pandemic has changed that.

(Devan Ridgway, WTIU/WFIU News)

Greene County General has set records for team members out sick and quarantining, and that’s not even the most challenging part, according to Reetz.

“We have 60 positions posted right now, because we have had so much staff resign,” she said. “And it is not resigning because of the vaccine, they're resigning because they're burnt out.”

That’s a big reason why her hospital requested National Guard support through Indiana’s Department of Health.  

The assistance is made possible by the frequent extension of an executive order from Gov. Eric Holcomb. An order that Holcomb has said he would consider ending if state legislators could implement certain protections.

'Only time I've done anything like this'

A group of six National Guard members arrived in Greene County two weeks ago. Sergeant John Nelson leads the team on the ground.

“We've got two medics, which I'm one of those,” Nelson said, standing in an empty patient room in the emergency department.

Nelson’s team is one of 13 deployed around the state.  

Each has 2 clinical staff and 4 general support. Initially, teams could support a hospital for only two weeks. Last month, that time was doubled, as cases surged and the number of quarantined staff climbed.

Nelson, who has served on various coronavirus-related missions during the pandemic, says this mission is unlike any he’s ever experienced.

“It's something that's happening to family and neighbors and here in our state, not something that's happening 10,000 miles away,” he said. “So, it definitely puts all those statistics into view.”

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Pfc. Kelsey Evans (right) assists with kitchen staff at Greene County's General Hospital in Linton, IN. (Devan Ridgway, WTIU/WFIU News)

Other members of his team echo those sentiments. For National Guard Sergeant Kerri Waskom, this deployment is more personal. She’s from Linton, population 5,400.

“It definitely hits home, like saying that the people that work in my community daily are struggling so much sometimes and overwhelmed,” she said.

Waskom, one of the two medical personnel stationed at Greene County, works in the clinic across from the hospital. Officials say it saw a record number of patients last week.

Everyone reiterated that the situation—here in Linton and across Indiana—is dire.

“It is that bad. Hospitals are running out of vents,” Waskom said. “I worked in a hospital that we put somebody on the last vent we had,” she said. 

She stressed all Hoosiers have a role to play.

“There’s people sick, severely sick with COVID [and] people severely sick without COVID. But, the biggest fact is that we don’t have the health care workers to provide the care that’s needed.”

Hospitals struggle under weight of latest surge in cases

During our interviews, a patient suspected of having COVID-19 was transported to the emergency room in an ambulance. The hospital has only one negative airflow room in the emergency department and, luckily, it wasn’t in use.

Upstairs, the intensive care unit has only a handful of negative airflow rooms to minimize the risk of infection. Each is full, that’s why an entire hallway is sectioned off.

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Healthcare workers in the ICU at Greene County General Hospital tend to patients. When entering the hallway, staff are advised to wear protective equipment. (Devan Ridgway, WTIU/WFIU News)

“This is not about where the virus came from,” Reetz stresses. “This isn't about what the virus is, this isn't about how the virus is mutating. It's about you're sick, stay home.”

Reetz says some measures—those that do not impact the clinical response—are being taken to ensure adequate resources are available for all patients.  Those types of triage tactics have been employed in other health systems, too.

She and other executives say patients should still feel comfortable going to the hospital.

“If you get really sick, and you need help, come to the hospital.” Reetz said. “We'll take care of you.”

In a county with fewer than 50 percent of eligible residents vaccinated, Reetz says political divisiveness, which has largely surrounded the pandemic, serves little purpose—certainly not in the ER.

“None of that is really about what happens in this room,” she said. “At the bedside of the caregivers and the doctors and nurses that are right here caring for you, we are—and always will be—looking out for that patient's best interest.”

Reetz admitted the jobs of care team members have become harder as health misinformation becomes ingrained.

“We're looking at the facts and data and the numbers that are about you,” she said.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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