Michigan hospitals operating 'at near capacity levels,' official says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan hospital leaders urged residents on Thursday to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before the situation in the state becomes "dire" and to help the health care system avoid reaching a "tipping point."

The pressing problem facing hospitals is not the availability of beds but staffing, said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. He described hospital staffing as "stressed to a level that we have not seen previously,"

"You can have all of the beds in the world," Peters said. "If you don't have an adequate number of nurses, physicians, other health care providers to staff those beds, that's where we run into to a problem.

"What's different now as opposed to the start of the pandemic is that we have lost a number of health care employees. Many have chosen early retirement. ... Many have left the hospital or health care setting altogether."

Registered nurses Deena Smith, left, and Kim Lindberg prepare to go into a patient’s room on 9 West at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich. on April 21, 2021. 9 West, a floor dedicated to COVID-19 patients, is facing its third COVID-19 surge since the pandemic began.

The comments came 18 months into the state's fight against COVID-19 and as the number of hospitalizations linked to the virus has been increasing in Michigan for more than five weeks.

As of Wednesday, the state reported 1,293 adults in hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the highest tally since May. While the total remains well below past peaks — the number exceeded 4,000 in the spring — hospital officials are concerned about the trajectory and a combination of factors, including the looming flu season, the start of in-person classes at schools and large numbers of patients seeking care with other issues.

Peters said hospitals are experiencing rising COVID-19 numbers and "pent-up demand" from people whose health problems have become more serious while they avoided treatment during the pandemic.

"Our hospitals throughout the state are now operating at near capacity levels," Peters said.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association and the Small Business Association of Michigan held a press conference Thursday to reiterate their calls for people in the state to get vaccinated against the virus.

As of Wednesday, 66.3% of the state's population age 16 and up has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination is effective and can prevent an "enormous" number of hospitalizations, said Dr. Geneva Tatem, a critical care physician at the Henry Ford Health System.

"After three surges and a potential fourth one, our teams are concerned," Tatem said. "Staffing shortages that are happening all around the state have us strained as well. And we are losing our sense of hope that we would be able to end this pandemic faster when we started our vaccination rollout many, many months ago."

If more people don't get vaccinated, the threat of a fourth surge is "very real," Tatem said.

"The strain that we are all under, we are all very concerned, may be a tipping point for all of our health systems around the state," the doctor said. "This scenario is even more concerning now that we know our typical flu season is fast approaching."

From Jan. 15 through Aug. 31, about 93% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan have been people who were not fully vaccinated, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

During Thursday's press conference, Dr. Nicole Linder, chief hospitalist at OSF St. Francis Hospital & Medical Group in Escanaba, shared the story of one of her COVID-19 patients who had refused to get vaccinated. While hospitalized, the patient became an advocate for the vaccine and encouraged family members to get vaccinated.

The patient, however, is going to lose her battle with the virus, Linder said.

"She's vivacious and gregarious and just a wonderful person," Linder said. "And this did not have to happen. Her family didn't have to lose her."

cmauger@detroitnews.com