Oakland U to Beaumont: Use our campus if needed

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Oakland University has offered its dorms, arenas and parking lot to Beaumont Health in the event of an overflow of COVID-19 cases, joining a growing number of universities nationwide that are offering empty campuses for hospitals' housing or other needs.

OU President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz reached out last week to John T.  Fox, CEO and president of Beaumont Health, to offer the resources of the Rochester-based university, which ordered a mandatory closure of all campus housing on Monday.

Oakland University's President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz announces the "Strive for 45: Invest in Student Success" initiative at the Rochester Campus.

Pescovitz, who previously served as the CEO of University of Michigan's health system, made the offer to Beaumont on March 19 because she expects local health care systems to be stressed, possibly within two weeks, as a result of the growing number of COVID-19 cases.

"I am anticipating the crisis that the health systems are going to be experiencing to be here very soon," said Pescovitz, who is also a medical doctor. "I am aware they are going to be at or beyond capacity within the next two weeks. I'm concerned about what that means."

The virus has created a global pandemic that has shut down public life, infected nearly 1,500 people in Michigan and claimed the lives of 15 as of Monday. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday issued a stay-at-home order to mitigate the continuing spread, which prompted Oakland University to ask the 550 students still living on campus to leave by 5 p.m. Wednesday. 

In a telephone interview, Fox said he did not take Pescovitz up on the offer because the hospital system has not reached a point where it needs to look to outside housing for COVID-19 patients.

Beaumont has 250 COVID-19 patients in its eight-hospital system's 3,500 beds -- occupying about 8% of the total.

"There is a lot of modeling going on about how the surge will work — when it will come and how big it will be and there is all sort of modeling that people are doing," Fox said. "All we really know for sure is we are not at our surge peak. It is a future event and whether it is at the end of April or the beginning of May, we can all speculate."

Fox added that a lot of variables go into the modeling that is being done by a variety of entities, including the state of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.

Those variables include how effectively social distancing is practiced in the community, he said.

There are so many other variables, "that make me concerned that the math is going to be tight," said Fox.

The virus is novel, without a vaccine or cure, and has claimed the lives of 15,495 people around the world as of Monday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

Michigan ranked ninth in the world for the number of confirmed cases by province/state/dependency as of Monday afternoon, according to the Johns Hopkins data.

Not all colleges are preparing for hospitals to possibly use campus facilities.

Michigan State University spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said she was unaware of any requests to utilize residence halls for hospital overflow.

"But we continue to work closely with our state and local health officials to assist them where possible," Guerrant said.

Wayne State University spokesman Matt Lockwood said WSU does not have any empty buildings at this time for hospital overflow.

"And we have not been approached about this," said Lockwood. "If a building were to become empty and we were approached about it, we would certainly consider it." 

Oakland joins Tufts University in Massachusetts, Middlebury College in Vermont  and New York University in preparing to help provide relief to a health system that is expected to struggle with coronavirus cases in the coming weeks

Pescovitz said that she reached out to Beaumont's Fox because the hospital system is the university's medical partner and she has been watching the virus spread in places such as Italy, New York and California.

She said the number of COVID-19 cases in Michigan continues to spike and  "in no time at all"  health systems "will become overwhelmed."

That's why Pescovitz offered Oakland University's people, and facilities, to Beaumont Health to provide isolation rooms inside campus housing or its large arenas for a mini-hospital, should the needs become necessary.

The OU dorms are not equipped to be hospital rooms but could serve as places for people to be quarantined, Pescovitz said. The large, open-air areas on campus could be used for make-shift hospitals, similar to what was used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the OU president said.

Pescovitz said she also offered Beaumont the use of Oakland University's parking lot for another drive-through COVID-19 testing site. 

While Fox didn't take Oakland up on its offer yet, Pescovitz said she wanted the hospital system to know that its facilities would be available if needed.

"We have excellent resources and could serve the community needs in a crisis," Pescovitz said. "We are here to serve the community."