Whitmer: State to shift COVID-19 patients among hospitals, seek disaster declaration

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing The State of Michigan Wednesday night informed hospitals across the state that they will be required to shift COVID-19 patients among hospitals to ensure that facilities at capacity can transfer patients to locations with empty beds. 

The Wednesday letter informing hospitals of the "load balancing" initiative also announced plans to explore "alternate care sites" to host overflow from area hospitals at capacity. Then Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday Michigan asked for a major disaster declaration from the federal government. 

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun detailed the patient plan further during a Thursday press conference with Whitmer. 

"Hospitals outside of southeast Michigan are being asked to serve as relief hospitals, offering 10% of their usual bed capacity to accept patients from other hospitals that are currently overwhelmed with critically ill COVID-19 patients," Khaldun said. 

On Wednesday, five-hospital Henry Ford Health System said two of its hospitals were near capacity for coronavirus patients and it was trying to create more bed space at other facilities. Beaumont Health indicated Wednesday that it is adding 100 COVID-19 patients a day and hadn't quite yet reached its capacity in its eight-hospital system.

The eight-hospital Detroit Medical Center said Thursday its growing number of virus patients were "putting a strain on our resources and staff."

"We have converted operating rooms, outpatient areas and recovery rooms into patient treatment areas to handle the surge," DMC spokesman Brian Taylor said. "We are working on ways to mitigate capacity issues by moving patients from hospital to hospital within our system and to increase our access to supplies and equipment."

Beaumont Health is transferring some patients among sites and has created "dedicated surge capacity" at Beaumont Hospital, Wayne, President and CEO John Fox said Thursday. The hospital system also is "partnering with other Michigan health systems with capacity for COVID-19 to move patients outside Beaumont for care."

Khaldun said the state, which had nearly 2,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and 60 deaths, was still on the "upslope" of the virus' path and that the apex could be "a few weeks out."

The Detroit News reported Thursday that civic and hospital officials are looking at large venues — such as the TCF Convention Center and the Detroit Pistons practice facility in Detroit — dorms and hotels as potential overflow sites for patients and physicians.

"We don't at this time have details on those alternative sites; however, we are actively working with our state leaders on developing and implementing plans for these sites should we need them," Khaldun said. 

The Army Corps of Engineers has indicated such alternative sites would take three to four weeks to set up, but the state is working to expedite the time line, Whitmer said. 

"The urgency is real," the governor said. "The situation is getting more serious by the day."

At the same Thursday press conference, Whitmer announced the state has requested a major disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

At least 10 states have received major disaster declarations from the Trump administration with the latest being New Jersey, Maryland, Missouri and Illinois on Thursday.

Whitmer said the state delayed the request because it was watching the approaches of other states. 

And "we knew that our best energies were first and foremost doing everything we could to mitigate community spread," she said. 

Among the assistance Whitmer is seeking in the FEMA request is individual funding for unemployment, housing, crisis counseling, case management, nutrition and legal services. She also asked for public assistance and hazard mitigation to help plan for second waves of the virus or similar threats in the future.

Despite help from Michigan companies such as Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, hospitals still are in desperate need of supplies such as gowns, masks, ventilators and sanitizer, Whitmer said. Federal supplies, she said, are "not nearly enough to meet our need."

"Of the contracts that we've been able to secure, we're lucky, we're ahead of where many states are," Whitmer said. But she acknowledged the state may be "bidding against" other states such as Illinois and some contracts the state has secured have since been diverted to the federal government. 

"We as Americans shouldn't be bidding against one another," Whitmer said. "We should be able to harness the federal power to ensure that everyone's got what they need." 

Whitmer and other governors were scheduled to participate in a noon COVID-19 response teleconference with President Donald Trump, according to the White House.

The press conference came the same day the state's count of confirmed coronavirus cases reached 2,856 and the number of deaths associated with the virus reached 60.

The state has run a total of 9,109 tests among commercial, hospital and state labs. 

On Thursday, Whitmer issued two executive orders further clarifying her expansions to unemployment benefits and lifting some restrictions on pharmacies. 

The orders are among more than a dozen the governor has issued since Michigan confirmed its first two positive coronavirus tests on March 10 and Whitmer declared a state of emergency. 

The orders have included the closure of K-12 schools, the closure of bars and restaurants, bans on assemblies of more than 50 people and a Monday stay-at-home order requiring non-essential workers to stay indoors.