A Center for Healing and Hope healthcare worker screens a patient for a COVID-19 test Wednesday in the parking lot of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Goshen. Staff photo by Joseph Weiser | The Goshen News
A Center for Healing and Hope healthcare worker screens a patient for a COVID-19 test Wednesday in the parking lot of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Goshen. Staff photo by Joseph Weiser | The Goshen News
Local doctors had a message for Elkhart County businesses and industries: Help us.

The Chambers of Commerce from around Elkhart County sponsored an online talk, “Protecting our Community — Business and Health Care Working Together,” with the Elkhart County Health Department, Elkhart County Emergency Management and doctors with Goshen Hospital, Elkhart General Hospital and Saint Joseph Health System aimed at helping business and industry leaders understand the health crisis in Elkhart County.

For the first three days of November, Elkhart County has had more than 600 people test positive for the novel coronavirus.

That is triple the amount from a month ago, Elkhart County Health Officer Lydia Mertz said. And testing has only gone up 50%. “We are not showing any signs of slowing down,” said Dr. Michell Bache, vice president of Medical Affairs for Elkhart General Hospital.

Ten percent to 20% of those who are positive are falling ill enough to need medical treatment or hospital care.

At the beginning of September, she said, EGH was seeing about 10 COVID patients a day. At the beginning of November, it is now 50 to 60 patients a day.

“It’s a big strain on what a hospital can do,” she said.

Goshen Hospital is in a similar situation. Dr. Daniel Nafziger, chief medical officer and an infectious disease specialist, said the numbers are 13% to 15% of those who test positive require medical care or hospitalization at Goshen. Roughly 15% of those patients then die, he said.

Bache said that Elkhart has a capacity of 144 beds. In September, when COVID numbers were lower, the hospital was able to operate business as usual.

With the higher numbers of 180 patients in the hospital, EGH is ratcheting back on services. Although, Bache explained, Elkhart found different treatment areas and opened new units, staffing has become a problem. Staff are getting sick with COVID and it is putting a strain on services.

So elective surgeries have been postponed and visitation has been limited.

Elkhart had 19 COVID-19-related deaths in October and has already had four in November. Before October, there were 29 deaths.

“We are going down a bad path,” she said. “And we really need to get this message out to the community. Everyone should be concerned about this.” Nafziger agreed.

Goshen Hospital is also facing staffing shortages, not only from COVID, but from staff quitting.

Nurses and other staff members find it heartrending to come to work and watch people “die of a preventable illness,” he said. “It causes distress and makes the work much more difficult.”

He is seeing colleagues choose to leave the hospital and go work in a factory or elsewhere because of the stress.

Nafziger added that Goshen had “grand plans” in April to open up to a capacity of 150 beds, but they do not have the doctors, nurses or respiratory therapists to do so.

Elective surgeries where beds are needed post-op are also being postponed at Goshen. Nafziger explained that “elective” surgery

is not what most people think it is. Some of the surgeries being delayed are potentially cancer patients who need surgery but not necessarily right at the moment, he said. Those beds are being taken by COVID patients.

“We will see more transmission and deaths unless we do something different,” Nafziger said.

Part of the challenge, health officials concurred, is getting all county residents to step up and do what worked this summer: wear masks, wash their hands, social distance by 6 feet, keep to an immediate family bubble when not wearing a mask, and stay home when sick.

“It does seem the transmission is in homes or smaller settings where friends and family are getting together,” Nafziger said. But, he added, larger social events, church, baby showers, weddings and other gatherings are also chances for people who are asymptomatic to spread the virus unwittingly.

Nafziger said that if a person is a member of a church, social club or social group, that they communicate to the leader of the group that it’s time to move activities to Zoom or not in person or meet outdoors.

“Stop meeting,” he urged.

He is sympathetic to those who want to create a “double bubble,” with two households that want to isolate together to make their lives work in a more practical way. But social events should be limited to a family’s immediate household, or virtual or outdoors.

And with Thanksgiving coming up, it might be hard but family gatherings should be limited, he said. And he urged employers to get that message across to employees.

“Those social events are bringing COVID into the workplace,” he said. “We don’t want to see businesses close or shut down, but we need to do something to interrupt this virus transmission.”

The doctors agreed that wearing masks and social distancing when visiting family is better than nothing to help reduce the spread.

Bache said people should operate as if everyone has the novel coronavirus and limit interactions with people who are not in an immediate household.

Dr. Chad Towner, the CEO for St. Joseph Health System, said only about 5% of the population is infected. To get herd immunity, that number has to be closer to 70%. “We’ve a long way to go and a lot of fuel to burn,” he said.
 
He gets updated from other hospitals in his group that are in major cities, and what is being seen locally is what played out in their markets.

“There is some predictive ability here,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the front end of a surge that isn’t getting better soon.”

Towner said the number could continue climbing well into January.

“Let that sink in for a moment,” he said.

But there are measures people can do to make a difference.

“We have to figure out a way to impact it,” he said.

One of the problems he’s seen is that people with medical conditions, such as heart patients, avoided getting medical treatment to avoid the virus and now they are “far sicker than what they would be normally.” Non-COVID patients are being hospitalized at a larger rate than normal, he said.

Mertz said she wants the public to pay attention to their actions all the time and to not let their guard down.

She said people should wear masks anytime they are with someone who is not living with them, keep a social distance of about six feet and wash their hands.

These are all simple and inexpensive things to do, she said.

“We know it works if we can get everyone on board doing that,” she said. “ … It’s not complicated.”
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