Some smaller central Indiana hospitals ‘on the brink’ of turning away patients


JOHNSON COUNTY — Authorities at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Franklin say they have nearly reached the point of having to divert patients away to other hospitals or medical centers as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to rise.

“I think we’re on the brink of not being able to safely take care of patients,” said Johnson Memorial Health President and CEO Dr. David Dunkle. “We have people that have been great, they’ve picked up extra shifts, they’re working longer hours than normal. But people can only be pushed so far.”

Hospitalization numbers from the Indiana State Department of Health show 3,460 total COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday: 2,897 confirmed and 563 under investigation.

For Johnson Memorial Health (JMH), the problem isn’t space. Currently, 14 of the hospital’s 22 specially-converted COVID-19 treatment rooms are occupied by coronavirus patients.

“We have space. We could shut down surgery completely,” Dunkle said. “We have rooms there, again, that we could put patients in if we had to, but we don’t [have] the staff to take care of those patients.”

As of Tuesday, 22 JMH staff members were in quarantine, and doctors and nurses are being shuffled around to fill in where they’re needed.

Monday night, Dunkle said the hospital was one ICU patient away from not being able to accept any more.

“We don’t have a large pool of critical care nurses just to step in,” Dunkle said. “So then you’re pulling a nurse, maybe from the medical surgical floor, or someone who’s not necessarily a critical care nurse to help cover.”

“And now you’ve got a nurse who maybe instead of taking care of one or two patients, taking care of three,” Dunkle continued. “And it puts more strain on the system.”

“Everybody here is doing their best to try to fight it with the information that we know at hand, just taking it day-by-day,” said JMH registered nurse Rachel Tribout. “Keeping the patients in high spirits has been a hard battle, just because people want to see positivity and that we’re gaining ground.”

“We’ve tried planning, preparing, and there’s no more preparation you can do,” said JMH registered nurse Lissy Miller. “We just take it day-by-day.”

Dunkle says JMH has explored looking outside the hospital for temporary help.

“So then you start looking at other avenues. Can we get in some temporary nurses? Agency nurses?” he said. “But again, there’s a shortage. Hospitals are getting hit all across the country.”

For now, JMH is in daily communication with area hospitals and medical centers so they know who could potentially take patients diverted from the hospital. Dunkle hopes it doesn’t reach that point, but there are serious concerns about the effects of a possible post-Thanksgiving surge.

“What keeps me up at night is thinking about what happens when no one can accept a patient,” he said.

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