Hundreds of employees test positive for COVID-19, Henry Ford Health says

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Henry Ford Health System had 686 employees test positive for COVID-19 over the last seven days, one of the highest tallies for one of the state's largest health systems amid Michigan's omicron surge. 

The workers with positive COVID results represent about 2% of the Detroit-based system's more than 32,000 employees.

The five-hospital system's emergency rooms are "extremely busy," monoclonal antibody treatments are scarce and 97 beds have had to be closed because of staffing shortages, said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer for the hospital system. 

The 97 beds closed across three hospitals represent about 5% of the total 2,000 beds across the hospital system. Staffing shortages plagued Henry Ford and other Michigan health systems before the pandemic but COVID-19 has exacerbated them.

The Detroit-based hospital system currently has 480 patients with COVID-19, a 25% increase from the week prior, Munkarah said.

Henry Ford Health expects the number of employees testing positive for COVID-19 will increase with the presence of the highly transmissible omicron variant. 

"We’re very concerned about what’s going to come in the days ahead," said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, the health system's medical director of infection control and prevention, who added that the state may be in for a "very rough month."

Hospitals across the state are experiencing increased numbers of staff testing positive, increasing pressures on a short staffing in hospitals amid a COVID surge, said John Karasinski, a spokesman for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. 

"The sheer number of staff in quarantine is negatively impacting the delivery of patient care, as hospitals are redeploying staff from other areas and departments within their facilities or system, canceling outpatient or nonemergency medical procedures, and implementing processes to ensure appropriate staff is available during each shift change," Karasinski said. 

Henry Ford Health officials last week shortened the  isolation time for employees who test positive to seven days, so long as their symptoms also recede by the seven-day mark, Cunningham said.

That time period, which was arrived at after consultation with experts, could be shortened to five days given the recent changes in recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Of the hospital system's more than 32,000 employees, roughly 1,900 as of October were granted an exemption from the institution's vaccine mandate.

The "silver lining" for the 32,000-plus employee hospital system and Michigan at large is that early data appears to indicate there are more moderate symptoms associated with the omicron variant, he said. 

"Still, vaccination remains the most effective tool for protecting ourselves," Munkarah said. "The third shot booster affects us even more. Science and data support that.

"We are continuing to see that the majority of people in the hospital continue to be the people who are unvaccinated,” he added. 

The health system's call with reporters Tuesday came after the state on Monday reported a seven day average of 12,247 new COVID-19 cases per day over five days. 

On Monday, the state health department reported 3,903 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus in Michigan, a slight uptick from weeks prior but still down from a record high of 4,518 adult hospitalizations on Dec. 13. 

Michigan identified its first case of the highly contagious omicron variant in early December.

Treatments for COVID-19 — such as the GlaxoSmithKline's Sotrovimab monoclonal antibody treatment and Pfizer's new antiviral treatment — will continue to be in short supply in the coming weeks, said Cunningham, the health system's infection control expert. 

At the start of the Tuesday call, Cunningham indicated the hospital system was on its last 30 doses of GlaxoSmithKline's Sotrovimab, an approved monoclonal antibody that's proven to be the only one to be effective against the omicron strain. By the end of the press call, the hospital system had received another delivery and hoped to be distributing the doses soon. 

The hospital system expects the state to begin distributing Pfizer's new antiviral pill within the next few weeks, with a special focus on southeast Michigan where cases are surging, Cunningham said. But the supply also will be extremely limited for the next several weeks, he said. 

Some of the individuals crowding the hospital system's emergency rooms are those seeking COVID tests because they cannot find them elsewhere, Munkarah said.

"We are trying as much as possible to continue to advocate and educate our community members that coming to the ER for COVID testing is not the best place to be, especially when we have significant number of people with COVID in the ER, and people are waiting for hours and the capability of testing is limited," Munkarah said.

Cunningham and Munkarah encouraged individuals to respect quarantine and isolation recommendations and to rely on the results of a positive at-home test instead of seeking a PCR to verify the result.

The hospital system is not short of testing supplies, Munkarah said, but is short staff to perform the swabbing needed for a PCR. 

"If you have a positive at-home test, believe it," Cunningham said. "You do not need to repeat the test at your doctor’s office or the hospital."