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Expanded ICU capacity 'new norm' for hospitals navigating two years of COVID-19

Lauren Chapman

It’s normal for hospitals to expand intensive care unit capacity, especially during flu seasons. To do so requires health care staff, supplies and space. But hospitals say they’ve already been running at capacity for the last two years, largely because of the effects of COVID-19.

Dr. Mark Luetkemeyer is the chief medical officer for the IU Health Adult Academic Health Center – which includes Methodist and University hospitals in Indianapolis. He said hospitals try to keep about 20 percent of their ICU beds open to make sure there is space available for patients.

During flu and other respiratory virus seasons, that buffer is usually enough to provide care for patients. But for the last two years, ICUs have been using that buffer because of COVID-19.

“So it’s not that we’re surging in additional ICU areas. That’s become our new norm – unfortunately – is a solid state of surge,” he said.

Luetkemeyer said even after expanding the ICUs at IU Health Methodist and University hospitals by 40 beds, they are still right at capacity.

“So really, as soon as an ICU bed opens up, there’s a patient that is waiting to get into that ICU bed, or there is a patient that’s needing that care fairly rapidly,” Luetkemeyer said.

When ICUs expand capacity, it’s usually for short bursts – flu and other respiratory virus seasons are cyclical. But Luetkemeyer said there has been no reprieve for hospitals, even when COVID-19 cases aren’t surging.

He said hospitals are also seeing more critically ill patients. State health officials have said that may be because of delays in care because of the pandemic.

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While the COVID-19 variant omicron is less likely to result in severe cases, experts say the sheer quantity of new cases could still overwhelm hospitals. Luetkemeyer said hospitals are doing their best to brace for more COVID-19 cases on top of the state’s record-setting hospital census.

“But I’ll be honest with you, we’re–we’re very close to that tipping point for what we can offer and do,” Luetkemeyer said.

Luetkemeyer said that’s in no small part because of staffing. He said IU Health, the state’s largest hospital system, is using a combination of external resources – like travel health care workers and staffing agencies – and hiring to try and address those issues.

But Luetkmeyer said hiring has been difficult as demand for health care workers has surged in Indiana, and across the country.

Contact Lauren at or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.

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