Hospital leaders say Michigan's health care system at 'tipping point'

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Two Detroit-area health systems on Tuesday said they're nearly overwhelmed by the coronavirus, and are bracing for the worst surge yet in January if people don't follow safety protocols over the coming holidays.

Officials at the eight-hospital Beaumont Health system and the five-hospital Henry Ford Health System said their hospitals are already near or at capacity, and they worry about the impact of the highly infectious Omicron variant spreading like wildfire across the country. 

Henry Ford Health System had 400 COVID-19 inpatients on Tuesday morning, a slight decrease from last week when 440 were hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Henry Ford Health System Chief Operating Officer Bob Riney said more than 200 employees have tested positive for the virus in the past days. That means fewer staffers are available to treat patients. As of Tuesday morning, 70 of the system's 1,500 beds were vacant across the system due to a shortage of health care workers. 

"This continual spread of COVID not only puts strain on health systems because of the number of patients, but the spread is exposing our front line health care workers to breakthrough community spread," Riney said. "These team members, therefore, will not be available until they recover and test negative." 

Dr. John Deledda, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Henry Ford Health System, said emergency departments statewide are experiencing "unsustainable operating conditions" which could be avoided if only people would get vaccinated and follow other simple safety measures. 

He said patients are backed up in emergency departments across Michigan, waiting for beds to open up in their hospitals, "and we don't know yet what omicron is going to bring us."

"The infrastructure of our health care system, not just here at Henry Ford but across the state of Michigan, is at a tipping point," Deledda said. 

"Today, more people are hospitalized across the state of Michigan than during the first surge in the spring of 2020 — and it really feels like this fact is under-appreciated, given what appears to be an ongoing laxity in masking, avoiding gathering and getting vaccinated. 

"For our emergency departments in general, this has been the worst state of the pandemic to date, and our situation is urgent," Deledda added. "The burden of preventable death and illness for the past two years has placed an intense and emotional cognitive load on our staff. The strongest among us are broken. Physically, emotionally and mentally."

Hospitalization rates stabilize  

COVID-19 hospitalizations at the eight-hospital Beaumont Health system have stabilized somewhat but transmission rates remain high, Beaumont's top infectious disease doctor said at a media briefing Tuesday. 

The rates are concerning as the holidays approach at the end of the week, and families should plan their celebrations around how best to keep their most vulnerable members from catching the virus, said Dr. Nick Gilpin, medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention for the health system.

Gilpin noted that infection rates currently are high across the nation with a seven-day average of 120,000 new cases confirmed daily, a 1.5% increase over the past week.

"Things are certainly going in the wrong direction from a nationwide perspective — statewide we are a little bit more stable," Gilpin said.

The statewide positivity rate, or percentage of tests that are positive, is currently at about 16%, with a 13.7% positivity rate in Oakland County, 18.3% in Macomb, and 13.2% positivity in Wayne County, Gilpin added. 

"Those test positivity numbers are relatively stable over the last three to four weeks, which may sound like a good thing, but in reality, those numbers are still indicative of really quite high community-level transmission, and very widespread transmission," he said. 

Beaumont had 580 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across its eight hospitals as of Tuesday morning, a slight decrease from last week when more than 600 were hospitalized, he said. 

About 23% of Beaumont patients hospitalized with COVID are vaccinated, with the remaining 77% unvaccinated, according to Gilpin. The health system counts people who completed their initial vaccination but did not get a booster shot as "vaccinated." 

Gilpin said the patients who are hospitalized with COVID even though they were vaccinated are typically either older adults, people who are immune-compromised or were inoculated soon after the vaccine became available and protection has waned over time.

More:Whitmer urges residents to get vaccinated, boosted as state braces for omicron spread

Though delta remains the dominant strain of coronavirus in the U.S., the new, highly infectious omicron variant is expected to become dominant across the world. Reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that omicron is surging across all areas of the country, Gilpin noted. And while the variant is known to be far more contagious than delta, little is yet known about the severity of the illness omicron causes. 

As of Tuesday, eight cases of the highly contagious variant have been identified in Genesee, Kent, Macomb, Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The boosters do appear to be effective at mitigating disease related to omicron and related to other strains of COVID as well," Gilpin added. "It's certainly not a guarantee that you may not get sick, but it's a much lower chance of getting severe disease, severe illness, hospitalization and of course death.

"The message here is that we're all getting pretty sick and tired of COVID, we may be done with COVID, but it's pretty clear that COVID is not done with us just yet," Gilpin said. 

"We need to think around the holidays about the people in our lives who are most vulnerable, and we should plan our holiday gatherings and get-togethers based on who those vulnerable individuals might be," Gilpin added. 

"Plan your activities around that person. If you've got an older individual that you're going to be getting together with, or maybe some unvaccinated individuals, then I think you need to make sure that you're taking extra precautions around them.

"Prioritize outdoor activities if that's a possibility, make sure you're wearing your mask, keep your distance, and make sure you're all getting vaccinated."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN