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Lansing's Sparrow Hospital expects to hit COVID-19 capacity within a week

Sparrow Hospital entrance in Lansing
Allen Neighborhood Center
Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Update, Monday November 16: After a weekend that was "incrementally better" than expected in terms of COVID-19 patient admissions, Sparrow leadership now believe the Lansing hospital will reach full capacity around Thanksgiving, rather than this week. As of Monday, Sparrow was at 81% capacity with 136 COVID patients, according to the state's census. 

"You never know what will happen day to day," says Sparrow spokesperson John Foren. "The latest I saw was conceivably Thanksgiving week. It'll be day to day." 

Still, starting Tuesday, the health system will begin moving a total of 15 non-COVID patients out of the main hospital to the St. Lawrence campus a few miles away. There's also the option to divert non-COVID patients to smaller, community hospitals, Foren says, but those are "very limited." 

What's more likely is Sparrow will begin converting more of the main hospital into COVID units. Those require isolation rooms with negative pressure to reduce the risk of transmission, as well as additional staff. 

"We're not there yet," Foren says. "I think St. Lawrence is the number one plan. That's taken some logistics. We'll get through that, and then we'll focus [on the main hospital.]"

Friday, November 13: Sparrow Hospital in Lansing is projecting it will reach its current capacity for COVID-19 patients within the next week, and is considering reopening a closed wing of the health system’s St. Lawrence campus to handle overflow patients in the coming days. 

Health systems across Michigan are facing similar pressures. With 3,220 Michiganders hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID cases Friday, hospital leaders say the state is on track to break the hospitalization record set in the spring, before the end of this month. 

Sparrow currently has 115 COVID inpatients, including 12 in the ICU, putting them at nearly 80% capacity, according to the state’s patient census. But if the current rate of admissions continues, multiple sources say, hospital leadership believes they’ll run out of the roughly 150 total beds currently available for COVID patients sometime next week.(Michigan Radio is not naming those sources because they’re not authorized to speak to the media.)

That’s after the hospital has already expanded the number of units treating COVID-19 patients within Sparrow. Those patients need to be in isolated, negative-pressure units to keep contamination from spreading.

One plan being considered is reopening a formerly closed wing of the hospital’s campus in St. Lawrence, just a few miles away, sometime early next week. It’s not clear whether those additional beds would be for COVID patients or non-COVID patients. 

The St. Lawrence site currently includes a hospice section, outpatient surgery services, a wound clinic, and a sleep center, according to its website.

“I can confirm we have alternative plans in case we reach capacity and that St. Lawrence is part of those plans,” Sparrow spokesperson John Foren said in an email Friday. “Like every other hospital in Michigan, we are monitoring our capacity daily.”

A testing system under strain, as demand increases

As of Monday, Sparrow will also start requiring anyone seeking a COVID test to first get orders from a medical provider, or be screened through the health system’s app.

“The change comes in light of the extraordinary demand for tests and will result in a more efficient and faster process,” the health system said in a Friday press release.

And the drive-thru testing site at St. Lawrence will now only be used for “testing for pre-op and pre-procedure patients,” according to the release. As it is, Sparrow says it has already processed more than 250,000 COVID tests.

Lines for testing have been getting longer, and turnaround times for results are slowing, a problem for hospitals depending on fast results to quickly clear or confirm a patient’s COVID status. 

Part of that slowdown comes from supply shortages as the virus surges across the country, hospital CEOs said at a Thursday press conference.

“The rapid testing, where you can get a turnaround in two hours, the PCR [diagnostic] testing is coming up in shorter supply as the government has to redistribute some of these test kits nationally,” said Beaumont CEO John Fox. 

“So what we're left with is more overreliance on other testing platforms that can take a day to get the results back. So that's a challenge in and of itself. And that is a resource that, for example, in Beaumont, we've been cut 20% by the government in the last two weeks as they've reallocated [those tests] to other hotspots around the country.”

It’s also from people misunderstanding and misusing testing during a critical time, says Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail. At a press briefing Tuesday, Vail said people mistakenly believe getting tested can give them the “all clear”  before traveling or attending a social gathering.

“They're going to get tested first, and everybody's getting tested first. And it's going to tax our system greatly. If people keep approaching life in the way that it's like, ‘I'm going to get tested before I do things [so] that I know that I and everybody around me is safe,’ ...it's just not factual,” she says.

That’s not just because you could be exposed to the virus after you get a test. As turnaround times stretch to three or four days, you may not get your results until after you’ve gotten together. Or the virus could already be in your body, but not show up on test results right away, Vail says.

“The bottom line is, my body has got to incubate that virus. I'm going to get it before I'm going to test positive. Now, I also can go get that test and it's going to be negative perhaps, and I'm still going to have to quarantine for 14 days [if I know I was exposed to the virus].

“So taking the test doesn't get me out of quarantine. And if I don't have symptoms, there really might not be a reason for me to get that test. Except I think I need to know,” says Vail.

Michigan Radio, Bridge Magazine, and The Detroit Free Press are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. We will be sharing accounts of the challenges doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel face as they work to treat patients and save lives. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact reporters Robin Erb rerb@bridgemi.com at Bridge, Kristen Jordan Shamus kshamus@freepress.com at the Free Press and Kate Wells katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.

[For more Michigan news right on your phone, subscribe to the Stateside podcast on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts today]

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