Hit hard by COVID-19, Batesville answers call for more hospital beds

'We have something that we can be happy about'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 14, 2020

BATESVILLE, Ind. — Hospital bed maker Hill-Rom Co. is adding 200 jobs at its Batesville plant as hospitals all over the country brace for a sudden influx of patients needing care for COVID-19.

The expansion will increase total employment to 1,900, the highest level since Hill-Rom relocated its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2015.

It also brings some much-needed solace to a part of the Tri-State that’s been unusually hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The three counties surrounding Batesville have some of the highest per capita infection rates in the country from COVID-19.

“We may never know how it happened or how it got to be this way,” said Batesville Mayor Mike Bettice. “We seem to have gotten it early and it got passed around before we had a chance to get social distancing to be going and to be effective here.”

Franklin, Ripley and Decatur counties had a combined 284 COVID-19 cases through April 12, or 365 cases for every 100,000 residents. That’s five times the per-capita rate of infection in Hamilton County, and more than 18 times Clermont and Boone counties.

Batesville Mayor Mike Bettice

On the day he talked to WCPO, Bettice attended the funeral of a close family friend who died from coronavirus. He saw a silver lining in the fact that his town was helping other communities recover from the disease with new beds for makeshift intensive care units in convention centers, tents and hospital lobbies.

“I hope everybody in the community takes time to celebrate that,” Bettice said. “There’s days I don't have very good days and so it's one of those few bright spots I get to look to and say, ‘Yeah, it's hit us hard but we're doing our best and we're pushing forward.’"

Ted Tekulve, CEO of Med-Mizer LLC, takes pride in how his company is rising to the challenge.

The Batesville-based maker of nursing home beds tripled its production capacity to fill a crush of orders for its steel-frame, expandable beds that fold into an upright position for easy storage. Med-Mizer is looking for up to 15 new laborers and welders as it fills orders from California, New York, Louisiana and Florida.

“It’s ever changing,” Tekulve said. “Luckily we all get along still.”

Med-Mizer beds await shipment

In addition to bumping its own production above 250 beds per week, Tekulve outsourced some of his orders to a neighboring company, Wood-Mizer, which makes sawmills. Tekulve’s uncle was a founder of both companies. They operate on adjacent lots in a Batesville industrial park and share employees and expertise from time to time.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie between the two companies, not just the name but the people,” Tekulve said. “They have the same equipment we do but on a larger scale. We’re able to take our work instructions, drop it into their facility and they can pick it up right away.”

Hill-Rom’s increase in coronavirus-related orders isn’t confined to hospital beds. The company also makes ventilators in a Southern California plant that’s adding about 50 jobs, said Howard Karesh, vice president of corporate communications for Hill-Rom.

“We are adding shifts. We are adding people,” Karesh said. “And of course, we are doing so all while paying close attention to employee health and safety and things like hand-washing stations, social distancing and additional spaces for break time to make sure we do everything we can to keep our own people safe.”

Batesville streets are quiet amidst COVID-19 lockdown

Hill-Rom played an important role in Batesville’s transition from a wood-products manufacturing center that relied on surrounding hardwood forests to make furniture and caskets to a more sustainable model based on health care and innovation. Founder William A. Hillenbrand established the company in 1929 to “bring the home into the hospital” with wooden cabinets and other furnishings intended to make hospital rooms more comfortable.

For decades, Hill-Rom and Batesville Casket operated as sister companies within Hillenbrand Industries, which went public in 1971 then split into two companies, Hill-Rom and Hillenbrand Inc., in 2008. Hill-Rom relocated its headquarters to Chicago in 2015 because it was increasingly difficult to recruit top-flight management talent to the Cincinnati suburb with about 6,600 people.

“When they first moved their headquarters to Chicago it was, ‘What does that mean to us as a community?’ But in time we have found that they’re a strong community partner and we are blessed to have them in our town,” Batesville Economic Development Director Sarah Lamping said.

Mayor Bettice hopes to build on the experience by celebrating how one small corner of the Tri-State continues to punch above its weight in a $2 billion U.S. industry.

“We have something that we can be happy about, something that we can all feel good about that we all have our chance to do our part,” Bettice said.

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