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As COVID surges again in Michigan, many hospitals are already full

Doctors running for the surgery
Anna Bizon /gpointstudio - stock.adobe.com
According to the latest state data, the region has seen a 20% increase in COVID patients. Many hospitals are now seeing numbers at the same level as the worst points in the pandemic.

Several Michigan health systems are once again at or near record numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations. But this time, hospitals are already straining to care for an influx of seriously ill patients who don’t have COVID.

“This, what we’re experiencing today is unprecedented,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, during a briefing with reporters Tuesday.

Spectrum reported Tuesday it was treating 367 patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19, a new record for the hospital system that surpassed the peak set last November.

Elmouchi said the number of COVID patients at Spectrum hospitals has been climbing for weeks, but starting about 10 days ago, cases started accelerating rapidly. Since last Monday, the hospital has seen a 32% increase in COVID patients.

But the unprecedented nature of the current surge goes well beyond the total number of patients. Elmouchi said Spectrum also has a record number of children admitted with the disease, and record volumes of patients in its emergency rooms - for all types of illnesses. And he says the hospital system has also broken records for measures of “acuity” - meaning the people sick in the hospital right now are sicker, on average than at any time in the past.

“We measure this, this is something that we report to the government even,” Elmouchi said. “The acuity of inpatients has been higher than it's ever been persistently at Spectrum Health, ever since the formation of Spectrum Health in 1997.”

That’s leading to longer wait times in the Emergency Department, and some health systems being able to accept only a fraction of transfer patients who need higher levels of care. Spectrum typically gets about 50 transfer requests a day, Elmouchi said, but are currently only taking ten.

And for nearly the last four months they’ve had to delay some procedures, requiring “very, very difficult decisions” on the part of surgeons and patients, said Brian Brasser, chief operating officer for Spectrum’s Grand Rapids hospitals.

“We've been deferring surgeries in our Grand Rapids hospitals, primarily on the adult side, but from time to time in the pediatric world as well,” Brasser said. “This week is particularly bad, because we not only have to defer surgeries that require an overnight stay, we have to defer surgeries so that we can free up space in our recovery room to take care of our inpatients.”

That means portions of the hospital that were previously dedicated to temporarily monitor patients who had just come out of surgery are now being used as regular patient beds. Spectrum executives say they’ve added room for 75 more patient beds as the surge has accelerated, and made plans to add 50 ICU beds. Brasser said patients are currently being housed “ward-style” in spaces of 10 feet by 10 feet, with a canvas curtain separating the beds. He said the hospital is looking at converting conference rooms and shared office spaces to patient care in the coming weeks.

Across the state, leaders at Henry Ford Health System said COVID hospitalizations there have increased nearly 60% in the last three weeks, with 365 patients in the hospital and emergency department as of Tuesday morning, according to chief clinical officer Dr. Adnan Munkarah.

And at Henry Ford, as at Spectrum, the vast majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated: 80% at Henry Ford, and 85% at Spectrum.

“So why is this happening? I think some of it's self-evident: we've only got 50% of total Michiganders who are fully vaccinated, and that means there's a large chunk of our population that remains unvaccinated,” said Bob Riney, Henry Ford’s president of health care operations and Chief Operating Officer.

“It's that population that is filling our state's hospitals. And then that allows...for the virus to live, mutate and persist. School outbreaks are also obviously also a big concern. Last year, we saw much greater discipline around mask and social distancing mandates than we've seen this year. And quite frankly, we see very little of that at all.”

The hospital leaders said vaccinations could take on even more importance in the coming weeks, as many people in the state make their Thanksgiving plans, given the high rate of community transmission. Family and friends who are unvaccinated not only have a higher risk of transmitting or contracting the virus, Dr. Munkarah said, but are putting even their vaccinated loved ones at greater risk.

“When vaccinated people are more exposed to the virus and to the infection, that is going to be [when you have] some breakthrough infections,” he said. “So the reason we are seeing this increased rate of breakthrough infection, is because of the fact that [there are] more and more cases of patients who have the infection that are around us at this point.”

That’s important because hospitals have little room to house more patients if the virus continues to surge. And the people tasked with caring for those patients are already worn thin.

“We’ve been in this pandemic for, you know, 19-20 months. And there’s stress in providing this level of care,” said Tina Freese Decker, CEO of Spectrum Health. “And so we ask for our community to recognize our health care workers, and other workers, that it’s your neighbor, it’s your friend, it’s your family member behind that mask that’s caring for you. And to say thank you and appreciate all the work that they are doing to keep our community healthy and safe.”

Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter Dustin Dwyer was a guest on Stateside Tuesday. You can hear his interview in the audio player at the top of this page.

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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.
Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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