Masks Required at Beacon Health Hospitals Amid Triple Threat
Beacon Health System announced this week that it will require masks again at all of its hospital locations in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan amid rising cases of COVID-19, influenza, and RSV. The health system, which operates hospitals in South Bend, Elkhart, and other communities, said the triple threat of respiratory illnesses has led to capacity issues.
“The entire Beacon Health System – Memorial Hospital, Elkhart General Hospital, Community Hospital of Bremen, Beacon Children’s Hospital, Beacon Granger Hospital and Beacon Medical Group practices – will require face masks be worn by anyone entering our facilities,” Beacon said in a press release on December 21.
The masking requirements apply to patients, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status. Beacon cited updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending indoor masking in counties with high or rising COVID and influenza levels.
Hospitals Dedicate Resources as Cases Surge Before Holidays
The updated masking policy comes alongside other efforts at Beacon’s hospitals to deal with the influx of respiratory illnesses. At Elkhart General Hospital, an entire unit has been dedicated to COVID-19 care to handle increasing admissions. The hospital is also limiting visitors to reduce possible exposure.
Similar visitor restrictions are being implemented across Beacon Health. The measures are meant to reduce pressure on staff and preserve capacity heading into the busy holiday season.
“Hospitals nationwide are struggling with capacity concerns with the rising number of patients with respiratory illnesses,” said Dr. Dale Patterson, chief medical officer at Memorial Hospital. “Placing restrictions on visitation and universal masking will help us reduce possible exposures and continue to care for all patients with and without respiratory illnesses.”
Indiana Hospitalizations Highest Since February as Flu Spreads
The issues at Beacon Health mirror strains on hospitals statewide as influenza positivity rates have skyrocketed in recent weeks. More than 500 influenza-related hospitalizations have been reported in Indiana so far this season – higher than any single season since the flu pandemic in 2009.
State health commissioner Dr. Kris Box said Indiana is experiencing an early and very severe flu season on top of steady COVID-19 circulation.
“We continue to see the numbers of flu cases and hospitalizations rise every week in Indiana,” Dr. Box said. “Hospitals throughout the state are very busy treating both flu and COVID-19 patients and they need our help.”
Hospital leaders have expressed worry about capacity with a possible COVID surge still ahead this winter. ICU occupancy rates are the highest they have been in Indiana since February. Public health experts are urging vaccination, masking, and other precautions to relieve strain.
Holiday Gatherings Raise Concerns About Accelerating Spread
There are fears that holiday gatherings and travel could further accelerate flu and COVID-19 transmission statewide. Cooler weather driving people indoors alongside pandemic fatigue has already driven a dramatic early flu season.
“Hospitals and health systems throughout the state are operating near or at capacity not just due to flu admissions but also COVID-19 admissions,” Brian Tabor of the Indiana Hospital Association told WFYI this week.
Now Memorial, Elkhart General and other Beacon Health hospitals are bracing for the very real possibility that cases and admissions could spike even higher in the coming weeks following Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. That could push staffing and capacity to the brink.
The updated guidance on masking and limitations on visitors are part of the health system’s attempt to mitigate what could be a challenging few months and preserve ability to care for the community.
“It’s a triple threat out there and our teams are working tirelessly to care for all patients,” said Elkhart General president Michelle Daniel. “We are taking steps to reduce the strain and ask the community do its part as well by getting updated vaccines.”
Flu Vaccination Rates Lagging as Officials Urge Shots
Health officials continue to urge vaccination as the best protection against severe flu and COVID-19 illness amid worries about a long difficult winter for hospitals. Flu shot rates are lagging previous years so far, leaving communities more vulnerable.
Only about half of Americans get an annual flu shot in a typical year. Rates can vary greatly by state but tend to be lower in the Midwest. Indiana perennially ranks near the bottom for vaccination based on CDC surveys.
State health leaders have stressed that flu shots and COVID boosters – while not 100% protective – remain extremely effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths. Lifting lagging immunity with boosted populations is critical to ease the burden of respiratory viruses.
“We want to keep people out of the hospital, and vaccination is the best way to do that,” said Dr. Box as she advised all Hoosiers 6 months and older get flu shots if they have not.
Beacon Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. James Shoemaker echoed that advice. “Staying current with influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations this season will go a long way toward relieving capacity strains on healthcare staff this winter and keeping our community healthy,” Shoemaker said.
Holiday Mitigations Could Shape Whether Surge Worsens
Now public health guidance faces the ultimate test with holiday travels and indoor gatherings on the horizon. Memories remain fresh of massive case explosions in January 2022 after the Omicron variant ripped through ill-prepared holiday gatherings.
Mitigation steps like masking, distancing, outdoor activities and testing before and after events could prove decisive in whether the current influenza surge and possible late COVID wave remain steady or dramatically worsen.
“I worry as people gather for the holidays that we’ll see this flu season heat up,” said Memorial Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Richard Rodgers. “But we have tools to fight this. Get your shots, wear masks in crowded indoor settings, stay home if you feel sick. If we all do that, I’m confident we can avoid crisis scenarios our hospitals faced earlier in the pandemic.”
Only time will tell but providers are preparing for a difficult January and February regardless. Beacon Health’s visitor policies, masking rules and capacity preparations reflect that reality as hospitals brace for an influx of sick patients. For now doctors are pleading for public cooperation.
“This is going to be a challenging winter – we know that already,” said Dr. Daniel Patterson of Memorial Hospital. “But this community has risen to meet difficult moments before. We support each other. We protect the vulnerable. That’s the South Bend way. If we keep living those values this season, we’ll get through this together.”
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