The Indiana National Guard has been mobilized to help at Riley Hospital for Children, where doctors and nurses are struggling to care for a large wave of youths with COVID-19.

The hospital, located on the IUPUI campus west of downtown, has admitted about four times as many children for COVID-19 treatment in recent weeks as in any previous wave during the pandemic. Dr. Elaine Cox, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said Tuesday during a media briefing.

More than half of the children admitted are spending time in the hospital’s intensive care unit, and about 40% of those are spending time on a ventilator, she said.

“There are more of them, and they are sicker,” Cox said.

The hospital was at 87% capacity on Tuesday morning with 32 patients hospitalized for COVID-19. But Cox said she expected those figures to grow throughout the day, as more patients are admitted with a wide variety of viruses and other medical needs. Riley is the largest children’s hospital in Indiana.

The Indiana National Guard team, made up of two clinical staff members and four non-clinical staff members will begin working at the hospital later this week. Their deployment will last for two weeks, and the hospital can apply for a two-week extension.

Riley Hospital is owned by Indiana University Health, which has had National Guard teams in 14 of its 16 hospitals in recent months.

The IU Health system is operating at about 120% of capacity, with extra beds set up in conference rooms and ambulance bays, said Dr. Chris Weaver, the system’s chief clinical officer.

“We’re full and we’re stretched,” Weaver said.

The system has contingency plans to add even more beds if needed, Weaver said. But at the moment, there are no plans to erect tents outside of Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, the system’s largest hospital, as it did during the early stage of the pandemic.

“In the last two years, we’ve come up with new spaces to take of people in a high-quality way that we never would have dreamed of before,” Weaver said.

The bigger challenge is the shortage of doctors, nurses and other patient-care staff, many of whom have retired, quit or taken other positions. Others have been infected with or exposed to the virus and have been put on medical leave.

At Riley Hospital, more than 100 people are walking into the emergency room each day for a COVID test, and more than 75% of the tests come back positive, Cox said.

The hospital doesn’t have enough beds to admit every patient who tests positive, she said.

“Our team is trying very hard to use wise clinical judgment and guidelines on who gets admitted and who gets sent home,” Cox said.

Of the 32 patients hospitalized at Riley today with COVID-19, 11 are in the pediatric intensive care unit and seven are on a ventilator, Cox said. Nine of them are in the maternity center.

Like many other hospitals around the state, Riley has suspended elective surgeries. It has also shut down art and music therapy and redeployed the therapists to help in the hospital units. Cox said she regretted suspending those programs, which have been shown to help children recover from illnesses and surgeries.

“But it’s what we must do now,” she said.

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