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With COVID at "an all time high," Michigan requests federal ventilators

Intubated adult white man under ventilator lying in coma in inte
Kiryl Lis - stock.adobe.com
An intubated man on a ventilator in the ICU. State health officials are requesting some 200 ventilators from the federal stockpile to help with the current surge and record numbers of hospitalized COVID patients.

Michigan saw more new COVID-19 cases this week than any previous week of the pandemic, state officials said, even as a record-breaking number of COVID patients are already overwhelming hospitals.

Yet despite these new peaks and the first detection of the omicron variant in Michigan on Thursday, state health officials say they will continue their strategy of focusing on “individual actions” rather than public health mandates to turn the tide.

“We are really counting on individual behavior," said state health chief Dr. Elizabeth Hertel on a press call Friday. "It's up to Michiganders now to take those actions.”

That means, above all, get vaccinated, she said. With only 56% of the state’s residents fully vaccinated, Michigan is lagging behind the national average, particularly among younger people.

“Overall, only about 2% of people who are fully vaccinated have been reported with a breakthrough infection,” Hertel said. “Based on data from most health systems in Michigan, three out of every four COVID patients are unvaccinated. If you have yet to receive the vaccine or you are not yet fully vaccinated, it is not a matter of if you will get sick, but when. Particularly with a more transmissible variant spreading across the state.”

State officials are requesting an additional 200 ventilators from the federal stockpile, and working with FEMA to deliver more monoclonal antibody treatments on an outpatient basis, Hertel said. But she also announced there are no more available federal medical assistance teams like the ones currently assisting at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, and Covenant Healthcare in Saginaw.

“There are a limited number of these sort of medical assistance teams from the Department of Defense,” she said. “We have three of them deployed in Michigan right now. There are other states that are also utilizing these resources. There are no additional federal resources available.”

But Hertel seemed to suggest Michigan would not be rejoining a dwindling number of states with mask mandates in place. In response to repeated questions about whether new restrictions were being considered, Hertel instead reiterated that the state’s “focus” was on people changing their own behavior.

“Right now, our focus is making sure that people are getting vaccinated when they're eligible, and getting the booster shots when they're eligible,” she said. “Masking is important while we go through trying to achieve our herd immunity through vaccinations. But vaccinations are the absolute best tool that we have, and it is imperative that people get vaccinated as soon as possible or get their booster shot if they're eligible.”

More COVID hospitalizations in Michigan than ever before

The situation inside hospitals is increasingly grim, as COVID death rates climb to an average of 87 people dying each day over the last week, according to state data. And non-COVID deaths are increasing beyond what’s expected too, just as they’ve done in previous surges, suggesting the health system is stretched beyond capacity.

Screenshot 2021-12-10 154523.jpg
MDHHS data show non-COVID deaths are up beyond what's expected, in a sign that hospitals are stretched beyond capacity.

This surge is taking a particular toll on unvaccinated pregnant women, said Dr. Michael Tsimis, a maternal-fetal medicine expert at Spectrum Health. Changes to the lungs that happen naturally during pregnancy also may put expecting moms at greater risk of COVID complications, he said, and they’re seeing more pregnant women end up in the ICU.

“What we also do in the ICU is that we actually have to bring in what they call these ‘crash carts,’” Tsimis said. “These are carts that are brought into the ICU suite, and they essentially are a cesarean section tray which can be opened at any time. So if a mom were to acutely decompensate because the lungs are failing, we have to perform a cesarean section for that potential fetus and deliver the fetus into that situation. And that's been done before, and it's intense. And it's something that you would only expect to see a handful of times in your career. But we've started to see it more regularly, which is very, very scary.”

The good news for pregnant women, however, is that the vaccine appears to protect their fetus, as well as themselves.

“We see that the immunity from the vaccination gives the protection, and those antibodies are passed on to the fetus with a robust protection, more so than a natural [COVID] infection,” Tsimis said. “So we know that the vaccine is the best way to not only protect the mom, but also protect the baby as well.”

Meanwhile, staffing shortages continue to put additional strain on hospitals, said Dr. Paolo Marciano, the chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn. With some 650 COVID patients across Beaumont’s hospitals and a rising number of non-COVID patients whose chronic conditions worsened during the pandemic, it’s harder to give adequate care.

“So what we're seeing is a pressure to be able to not only maintain the standard of care, not just about COVID, but across all the diseases, and also try to maintain a certain level of experience for the patients,” he said. “And so a few weeks or so ago, we really sent out [a message of] ‘Help!’ And it was a very sobering moment in my life.”

The recent arrival of 23 U.S. Army medical workers has helped, Marciano said.

“That has been a tremendous lifeline,” he said. “...And so where we are today is really just keeping our heads above water.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.