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Scramble underway to find more space, staff as southeast Michigan hospitals near their limits

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies assess Detroit's TCF Center. The plan is to turn the center into a field hospital for COVID-19 patients.

Hospitals across southeast Michigan are scrambling for more space and staff to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, as the need surges across the region with no end in sight.

As of Sunday, Michigan reported 5,486 COVID-19 cases, with 132 deaths. Those numbers are guaranteed to continue climbing over at least the next several weeks, pushing local hospitals past capacity.

That has those hospitals making hasty decisions to find space for patients, and desperately trying to find more staff to care for them.

Henry Ford Health System was caring for 504 COVID-19 patients as of Sunday. The situation is growing desperate, according to a nurse who works at Henry Ford’s main hospital in Detroit.

“We’re at capacity. We don’t have any beds. We don’t have any vents [ventilators],” the nurse said Saturday. Michigan Radio is not naming the nurse to protect their job.

Respiratory therapists, who run the ventilators, are also stretched to the limit, according to the nurse. The unit had seen 4-5 deaths by mid-way through their shift that day.

"I had a family that wanted to come up, one of the nurses from management said no no no no no, they can’t see the patient,” the nurse said of a patient who had died. "They [the family] should be able to put on a gown and a mask and come up, at least just see through the window. This is morally just wrong."

In a statement, Bob Riney, Chief Operating Officer for Henry Ford System, said the system is near capacity at several hospitals, “including Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Much of the challenge relates to having adequate staffing on hand to care for the additional number of COVID-19 patients we are admitting.”

Riney said they are “working aggressively on a number of options to increase staff,” including: easing the backlog on employee testing to get previously quarantined employees who are COVID-19 negative back to work; initiating additional redeployments from within our organization; facilitating temporary staffing through travel nursing and other agencies; and seeking staffing support from hospitals across the state that are not experiencing heavy COVID-19 volume.

Beaumont health system did not respond to a request for information regarding its capacity on Saturday. Earlier this week, the hospital system said it had already begun transferring COVID-19 patients between hospitals. It has shut down other functions at its Wayne hospital, and is dedicating that site to accommodating COVID-19 patients that can’t be cared for at other hospitals.

Beaumont was caring for 810 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Sunday.

The Detroit Medical Center has not been releasing data about the number of COVID-19 patients it has. But as of Saturday, “We are using all available space in our hospitals to care for patients. We have converted operating rooms, outpatient areas and recovery rooms into patient treatment areas to handle the surge. We are working on ways to mitigate capacity issues by moving patients from hospital to hospital within our system,” the DMC said in a statement.

The situation has become so dire the federal government is now getting involved to identify sites around Metro Detroit that can serve as makeshift hospital space.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Michigan National Guard, and other state and federal agencies visited Detroit’s TCF Center to “assess the facility for conversion into an alternate care facility for the State of Michigan response to COVID-19,” the Army Corps said.

Plans are already in the works to turn the TCF Center into a field hospital with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The North American International Auto Show, scheduled for this summer, has been canceled. The site will have around 900 beds, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said on Sunday.

"The State of Michigan is working around the clock and doing everything we can to slow the spread of the coronavirus," Governor Whitmer said in a statement. "We are proud to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, and the TCF Center to expand capacity in Detroit. By mobilizing quickly to construct a large alternate care facility in Detroit, we can help save lives." 

The Army Corps said Saturday that it’s conducted 15 alternate care facility assessments in Michigan.

Disclosure: Henry Ford Health Systems is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

Updated 3/29/202 at 6:28 p.m.: This article was updated to include the total number of COVID-19 cases and deaths reported in Michigan, and hospitalizations at Henry Ford and Beaumont Health Systems, on Sunday.

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