No more federal help available as Michigan hospitals grapple with latest COVID surge

Michigan hospitals are overwhelmed in the fourth surge of COVID-19 and federal staffing help is tapped out.

Three teams of 22 physicians and nurses from the U.S. Department of Defense are deployed at Beaumont Hospital-Dearborn, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and Covenant Healthcare in Saginaw. But for other hospitals across the state, including War Memorial Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie and Munson in Traverse City, that are requesting federal assistance, there are no bodies to offer, Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of HHS, told reporters in a call Friday.

“We do not have an unlimited number of healthcare providers in this state and this country,” Hertel said. “There are no additional federal resources available.”

The news is a blow to health systems across the state as the fourth surge of the deadly coronavirus has lead to a record number of hospitalizations.

As of Wednesday, there were 4,630 people in Michigan hospitalized with COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19, a number higher than at any point during the pandemic that took hold in the state in March 2020. Inpatients with COVID-19 are taking up 21.5 percent of all hospital beds in the state, a figure that has been rising for the past 20 weeks. At no point during the pandemic has the percentage of COVID inpatients accounted for more than 20 percent of all beds in the state.

Cases are also now higher than they were at this time last year, though less than the surges last spring and prior to Thanksgiving last year. The current surge is caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is believed to be more than twice as contagious as the original alpha variant of the coronavirus.

Without vaccines, it’s plausible that cases would exceed more than 1,200 daily cases per 1 million residents. Currently, the case load is at 649.7 cases per million over the last seven days, according to state data.

“Vaccinations remain our best option,” Hertel said. “To individuals not yet vaccinated, you are risking serious illness, hospitalization and even death. Even for people under 65. People in their 20s and 30s are testing positive and ending up in the hospital.”

Between Dec. 1-7, residents aged 30-39 experienced the highest case load of 722 daily cases per million people. About 39 in the 30-39 age group were hospitalized daily over the last seven days, though a lower number than those aged 60-69 with more than 115 COVID-19 hospitalizations daily over the last week.

The state is also accessing its ventilator stockpile and requesting an additional 200 ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile to deal with the growing number of hospitalized COVID patients requiring mechanical assistance to breathe, Hertel said. The state has 80 national stockpile ventilators in its possession and 724 state- or healthcare coalition-owned ventilators.

As of Dec. 8, there were 601 hospitalized COVID patients on a ventilator, or about 13 percent of all hospitalized COVID patients. On average last week, 87 people died of COVID each day in Michigan hospitals. Nearly 25,000 people in Michigan have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

The latest surge may be exacerbated by the emergence of a new, more contagious variant in the state: omicron. The new variant, which has rapidly spread to 25 states, was first identified in Michigan on Thursday in Kent County on the state’s west side. The Kent County omicron case was considered mild, said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the state of Michigan.

Early indications are that omicron is more contagious than the very contagious delta variant, but that its impacts are less severe. However, with hospitals overrun with patients, adding a new variant to the mix presents even greater and graver logistical challenges.

Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor had canceled 40 surgeries through Wednesday this week to redeploy staff to care for more COVID patients, Dr. David Miller, physician and president of the University of Michigan Health System, told reporters earlier this week.

Coupled with the ongoing labor shortage — the system has upward of 400 unfilled positions — Michigan Medicine has also closed critical care beds in its pediatric hospital to ensure better staffing in its emergency and intensive care units.

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“Patients who don’t receive timely surgery are dying,” said Dr. Marschall Runge, CEO of Michigan Medicine and medical school dean. “(The unvaccinated) are risking the lives of others who may die from preventable diseases who can’t get their healthcare.”

Deaths not caused by COVID-19 are also on the rise, indicating hospitals are overwhelmed and care is being impacted, Bagdasarian said. Excess deaths have been higher than previous averages four out of the last eight weeks, according to state data.

Health officials across the state are begging residents to get vaccinated. Michigan’s vaccination rate ranks 32nd in the country with just 55.46 percent of the population vaccinated.

Vermont is the highest vaccinated state in the country at 74.52 percent.

“We can all agree we’re ready to be done with this pandemic, but this pandemic is not over,” Hertel said. “Right now, every person in the state has the opportunity to drive the numbers back down by getting vaccinated and getting your kids 5 and up vaccinated.”

Asked if any limitations or mandates, such as wearing masks in schools, are forthcoming, like was done during the early parts of the pandemic, Hertzel replied that the state is urging mask-wearing, vaccinations and other preventative measures but did not commit to any mandates.

This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain’s Detroit Business.


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