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Henry Ford Health: We’re in “plateau stage,” but keep social distancing

Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit
Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio

Doctors at Henry Ford Health System, one of the largest and hardest-hit networks in Detroit’s COVID-19 outbreak, say they are “safely in a plateau stage, and hoping to reach a recovery” in terms of hospital admissions and other indicators.  

But that good news was tempered by a warning: nobody knows when it will be safe to stop social distancing

“If you suddenly reverse that, then it could really put all of us at a risk for going through a second surge,” said Dr. Steve Kalkanis, CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group and Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer for Henry Ford Health System. 

The good news

There is “great reason for hope,” Dr. Betty Chu, Henry Ford’s Associate Chief Clinical Officer and Chief Quality Officer, said on a media call Thursday afternoon. “We have seen some decreases in COVID patients, which places us more on a plateau phase of this pandemic... And we hope that we're continuing to flatten the curve, as we're not seeing as much of a surge in numbers. This morning our total hospital admissions was 617, which represents our lowest number since April 1st.”

“We are incredibly encouraged by the fact that we continue to discharge more [COVID] patients than we admit,” Kalkanis said during the call. “We continue to extubate successfully more patients than need to go on ventilators. And our numbers are holding steady, to the point where all of the contingency planning that we had done over the last couple of weeks, in terms of opening up other sites for acute beds...are no longer required. And we are at about 50% capacity right now, in terms of our ICU. So all of those are very, very positive.”

The health system is also using about 68% of its ventilators, Chu said, and currently has enough N95 masks for the next couple of weeks - a big improvement from 10 days ago, when they had only a three or four day supply.

And they’ll begin slowly reopening certain “time sensitive” surgeries, Kalkanis said. 

“At this point we’re starting with what we're calling ‘ambulatory surgical cases.’ So procedures that have a low likelihood of needing intubation or an ICU admission or, you know, or an inpatient stay,” he said. “And so these are procedures like cancer biopsies…[And] like certain procedures that transplant patients need to get before they get their actual transplant surgery, cardiac catheterizations, you know, endovascular treatments for stroke and to prevent blood clots and so on and so forth.” 

The bad news: not out of the woods 

But both administrators said they’re concerned such progress could be undone if people stop social distancing, or if Governor Whitmer’s “Stay at Home" order were to be suddenly lifted. 

“And so until there is significant, what we call herd immunity in the population, or a vaccine or a treatment, it's really not going to be entirely safe to magically flip on a switch,” Kalkanis said. 

“And so I think that over the next couple of weeks, we'll see where the numbers take us. But we hope that we will in a very targeted way, be able to identify areas that maybe are less at risk. And we'll have a greater understanding of who can protect themselves best, in what circumstances, in our hospitals and in a healthcare setting," he said. “But personally, I'm not comfortable on this date in mid-April lifting these [stay at home] orders because, again, we're at a plateau phase. We have not gone on that down slope of the curve yet. And so there's still significant concern.”

The need for more testing 

While testing is becoming increasingly available to Michiganders with even mild symptoms, Dr. Chu warned that until every resident throughout the state has easy access to quick, reliable testing, it’ll be hard to stop the spread of the virus.  

“And so without the availability and widespread ability of testing statewide, lifting the 'Stay at Home' order would put other areas, I believe, of the state at risk,” she said. “Because they wouldn't have, like we do, a 12-24 hour turnover and testing capability. And then you end up having exposure of folks who don't know that they’re COVID positive, employees that are exposed, other folks in the community that are exposed. So that widespread availability of testing is a critical part in my mind of us reopening.”


Editor's note: Henry Ford Health System is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors. 
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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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