Detroit area hospitals struggling with COVID-19 could repurpose big venues for capacity

As more Metro Detroit hospitals reach capacity from a surge of COVID-19 cases, one prominent health care leader is urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to use the state's medical coordination powers to force other health systems to take patients when a hospital becomes overloaded.  

Beaumont Health CEO John Fox's plea for help comes a day after his hospital system, Michigan's biggest, reported its facilities were nearing capacity. Henry Ford Health System officials also said Wednesday that "capacity is quite full" at their Detroit and West Bloomfield hospitals, prompting them to shift patients. 

Several tents are erected next to the fieldhouse at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The city and local hospitals are preparing the fairgrounds to be used as a drive-up testing area for the coronavirus.

“We are growing by 100 patients a day,” Fox said during a Wednesday tele-town hall organized by the Detroit Regional Chamber. “We are doing all sorts of things to create capacity."

The state health department has a Medical Control Authority that can supervise and coordinate emergency medical services in a "mass casualty incident." Its powers include the “coordination and distribution of resources.”

The state was not immediately able to say whether or how Whitmer planned to respond to Fox's request. Lynn Sutfin, a Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said the state planned to have a report completed within the next couple of days on hospital loads.

Meanwhile, Fox noted Beaumont expected to have 600 confirmed COVID-19 patients in its eight-hospital system later Wednesday with 635 people admitted for confirmed and suspected COVID-19 diagnoses.

The state total of confirmed coronavirus cases hit 2,294 Wednesday afternoon and the number of deaths related to the virus reached 43. 

The situation has prompted civic and hospital officials to look at large venues — such as the TCF Convention Center and the Detroit Pistons practice facility — dorms and hotels as potential overflow sites for patients, physicians and child care for essential emergency personnel. 

Beaumont, Fox said, is looking at scenarios that include adding bed space at Oakland University dormitories. But the problem with using dorm or hotel space to temporarily house patients is those spaces wouldn’t come with access to laboratories or pharmacies, like hospitals do, he said.

Henry Ford Health System CEO Wright Lassiter said the hospital has had conversations with four different facilities about the potential to use large-capacity public spaces for the care of a large number of individuals or to provide hotel accommodations for staff to keep them close by.

The hospital is “making contingency plans if we had to take those steps,” he said.

Henry Ford is creating additional bed space in its outpatient clinics, converting operating rooms to intensive care units and moving non-COVID-19 patients to separate facilities to keep them from becoming infected.

Michigan's health care system has roughly 25,000 beds, Whitmer has said, but as of a March 2 inventory more than 18,000 — or about 72% — were being used for other illnesses. The governor issued Monday a stay-at-home order, noting early projections indicate that without action, roughly 70% of Michigan's 10 million residents could be infected and 1 million hospitalized. 

The governor cited Michigan's capacity problems during an appearance on MSNBC on Wednesday night. But she added that the state was "nowhere near the apex" of COVID-19's spread.

"It is a dire situation right now," Whitmer said.

"The modeling that we were originally working with was very concerning," she added. "We are outpacing the concerning modeling that I just described.”

DMC and Ascension St. John Hospital declined to release information about the number of COVID-19 patients they were serving as of Wednesday.

DHHS' Sutfin said she did not have that data from the hospitals. The state has asked the hospitals to submit information on testing and patients, according to a Tuesday executive order.

The state of Michigan and some hospital systems have approached hotels about the possibility of housing patients amid an expected surge in coronavirus hospitalizations, said Justin Winslow, a spokesman for the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association. 

The governor's office on Wednesday referred questions about the potential outreach to hotels to the Department of Health and Human Services. The Department of Health and Human Services referred questions to the National Guard. The National Guard did not provide an official response.

Several tents are erected next to the fieldhouse at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit, Wednesday, March 25, 2020. The city and local hospitals are preparing the fairgrounds to be used as a drive-up testing area for the coronavirus.

Discussions among the state and undisclosed hotels and hospital systems are ongoing, Winslow said. Amid "single-digit" occupancy at some hotels and near-capacity crowds at some Detroit-area hospitals, the industry has known such a request from the state "is possible and a likely outcome."

"Hotels want to be part of the solution because these are unprecedented times," he said. "My assumption would be it wouldn’t be for a portion of, but the entirety of, an establishment if an agreement could be reached.”

Hotels and restaurants have been struggling to stay viable during the state shutdown, Winslow said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Wednesday that the TCF Center, Detroit Pistons practice facility or dorms at Marygrove College are all areas that could be considered as officials plan for “surge capacity.”

"Those are all things that the governor is appropriately exploring, not just in Detroit but around the state,” Duggan said. The mayor added he’s been in contact with Whitmer and the state’s top health officer.

“I have told them they have my full support at any facility they want to use that is most appropriate,” Duggan said.

Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, said Wednesday the county, as part of its normal operating procedure for homeland security and emergency management, identifies vacant facilities for potential uses during any emergency and has an inventory of available buildings as well as their functionality.

County officials, he added, have not had talks or been asked yet about potential space to put in medical beds.

“I want to be very clear; it’s normal procedure for us to inventory and identify potential spaces during an emergency,” Nowling said. “The hospitals have capacity, and until they don’t, that’s where people need to go for help when their doctors tell them to go there.”

The TCF Center has been approached about the possibility of functioning as a "possible hospital overflow facilities in Detroit," said Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority. 

"As we navigate this unprecedented time together, TCF Center is prepared to be a strong partner in supporting our medical facilities and residents," Alexander said. "We will do our part to support our community during this crisis."

Staff Writers Craig Mauger and Karen Bouffard contributed.