UM health execs plan hospital at indoor track, find social distancing cuts COVID-19 cases

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The University of Michigan health system plans to open a field hospital next week in the Ann Arbor university's indoor track at the South Athletics Facility on State Street to house overflow coronavirus patients. 

Michigan Medicine also is exploring the possibility of repurposing dorms to house some patients and hotels to house recovered patients who can't return home yet, leaders said during a Tuesday press conference. 

"We’re thinking in a modular fashion," said Keith Dickey, chief strategy officer of Michigan Medicine's adult hospitals. "We have multiple sites that we’re evaluating."

Medical Technologist Scott McClellan works on developing a test for the coronavirus in the microbiology laboratory at the University of Michigan.

The hospital is hoping to open the field hospital by April 9 or  April 10 and is working out ways to staff it. 

"We are in the midst of evaluating that right now," Dickey said. "...This is very much a live exercise."

The state has announced plans to put about 1,000 beds into the TCF Center in Detroit to take overflow patients from southeast Michigan hospitals. The number of beds that will be placed at UM was not immediately clear.

President Donald Trump said at a Tuesday briefing that the Army Corps of Engineers would be installing 250 beds at a field hospital in Michigan but didn’t identify the site.

The plans at UM are occurring as officials on Tuesday predicted the health system could lower its peak coronavirus patient numbers by 65% if Michigan residents continue to practice "aggressive social distancing." That decrease could be applied throughout the state if Michigan residents follow the proper protocol.

New forecasting models from the Ann Arbor-based university estimate the system could lower the peak on May 4 from 5,860 patients to about 2,000, according to a Michigan Medicine statement. 

Even the lowered number is twice the hospital system's current capacity, which is why officials still are pursuing alternative sites. 

The COVID-19 patient numbers throughout Michigan are likely to get worse before they get better, but that "means we need to give it time before (social distancing) has an impact, said Dr. Vikas Parekh, associate chief clinical officer for Michigan Medicine’s adult hospitals and professor of internal medicine.

“This data confirms that everyone in Michigan can help us flatten the curve and it is crucial. This is not to be taken lightly,” he said.

The hospital system, Michigan Medicine, is licensed for 1,000 beds but has been exploring how to redeploy staff and convert other spaces or dormitories to meet the expected surge. The system also opened a 32-room containment unit to group patients with COVID-19. 

The health system defined "aggressive social distancing" as staying away from people outside immediate family as well as limiting trips to the store or pharmacy. 

"The goal is to have contact with as few as possible individuals outside of your household," Parekh said. 

In Italy, data shows that each social distancing rule put in place there slowed the doubling time of infected individuals from three days to eight days. 

The Greektown Casino shows support and displays Detroit Strong atop it's hotel as the battle against COVID-19 continues in Detroit on Tuesday, March 31, 2020

“The impact is striking. It is critical that our community maintains a high level of social distancing to help our healthcare community continue to care for COVID-19 patients and all of our patients at the highest, best standards,” Parekh said in a statement.

Michigan's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Monday that Michigan could still be "several weeks" from peaking in numbers of coronavirus patients. A University of Washington study suggested Michigan's cases might peak around April  8 based on how Michigan initially responded to the outbreak.

Khaldun estimated the state may need an additional 5,000 to 10,000 ventilators while the University of Washington study estimated there was a need for nearly 1,800 ventilators at the peak.

Michigan reported a total of 7,615 cases through Tuesday afternoon as the number of cases spiked by 1,117 and the number of reported COVID-19 deaths jumped 75 to total of 259 mortalities.

Detroit alone reported 2,080 positive cases of the virus Tuesday and a total of 75 deaths.

Several researchers have said additional testing and hospital data is needed before a more certain timeline is complete regarding the path the virus may follow in Michigan.