Beaumont: Emergency departments near capacity amid COVID, other ills

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Emergency departments at Beaumont Health's eight hospitals and two emergency centers are near capacity, prompting Michigan's largest health care system to ask people not to visit unless their health needs are urgent. 

Some of the emergency patients are arriving with COVID-19 symptoms, but the majority have other health problems that they ignored during the pandemic that have now become urgent, Beaumont officials said Wednesday. 

Beaumont doctors at a Wednesday afternoon press conference urged patients to consider other options, like urgent care centers, before heading to the emergency room. But they made clear that no patients will be turned away from Beaumont emergency rooms. 

"If you're having symptoms of chest pain and shortness of breath and stroke-like symptoms — that's quite obvious. I would err on the side of caution and come into the ER," said Dr.  David Donaldson, emergency center chief and medical director of the vaccine clinic at Beaumont Hospital Troy. "It's better to be evaluated and not have an emergency than to have an emergency and not be evaluated.

"If it's something that's been ongoing, more of a long term issue, or just a minor issue, I think we have other ways you can be seen such as an urgent care or calling your own doctor."

Crowded emergency departments and near-capacity admissions are happening at hospitals across the nation for a variety of reasons, Donaldson noted. On Wednesday, Alaska's largest hospital — Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage — started to ration care as it reported being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, according to the Associated Press.

"At the start of this pandemic, volumes in emergency centers across the country went down," he said. "At this point volumes have returned to normal, and now we're seeing pre-pandemic volumes on top of COVID. 

"That in combination with the staffing shortages we're seeing at Beaumont, just like at most health systems, is really just this perfect storm of patients that are now returning for their normal care, plus the COVID patients, plus now the staffing crisis."

Dr. Christopher Carpenter, an infectious diseases specialist and chair of Internal Medicine at Beaumont Royal Oak Hospital, said 241 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 across the health system as of Wednesday, and most are unvaccinated. About one-third were vaccinated, and most of those are elderly people who would have been among the earliest cohorts to get the shots. 

The health system is preparing to give booster shots when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives hospitals the go-ahead, expected in late September, he said.

In the meantime, Carpenter urged people to get vaccinated if they haven't already.  

"We do have vaccines out there that can prevent serious illness in a lot of populations," Carpenter said. "That's frustrating as well as just the toll it's taking on our staff."

Beaumont officials said resources are strained across hospital departments due to a staff shortage caused by the pandemic. Many employees quit or retired early due to the stress of dealing with COVID-19 patients. 

The health system, Michigan's largest, has closed 180 of its 3,375 beds because there aren't enough workers to staff them. The beds are equally spread out across all eight of Beaumont's hospitals and include regular medical floors, procedural areas and intensive care units, spokesman Mark Geary said. 

"To our knowledge, we have never had to temporarily close this many beds before," Geary added.

The shortage could soon be exacerbated by a Beaumont requirement that all of its employees, including those who don't work directly with patients, be vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18. The health system is granting  limited exceptions for individuals with specific religious or medical reasons.

Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System has trimmed 120 beds from its five hospitals because there aren't enough nurses or other workers to staff them, health system officials said Monday. 

Six of Beaumont’s hospitals were listed at 86% capacity or higher, with 90% of beds occupied at Beaumont Trenton, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ hospital capacity website that was updated Monday. Beaumont’s Grosse Pointe and Taylor hospitals were less stressed at 69% and 65% capacity, respectively.

But other hospital systems appeared to be more challenged, according to the state health department’s statistics.

St. Joseph Mercy Hospital was full at 100%, while St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell was listed at 98%.

The Detroit Medical Center’s Detroit Receiving and Harper Hutzel hospitals were listed as practically full at 99%, according to the site.

West Michigan's Spectrum Health, which has 14 hospitals, had a wide range of capacity with Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids the highest at 96%, followed by Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids at 91%. The lowest was Gerber Memorial at 46%. 

Brian Brasser, chief operations officer at Spectrum Health said about 10% of their inpatients are COVID-19 patients — but that's on top of non-coronavirus volumes that are back to pre-pandemic levels.

"We’re not at a half of where we were," Brasser said. "But the overall demand for health care services is higher, so even when community spread was 1-3%, even at that time we were very busy."

Compounding the problem, some care homes and rehabilitation centers are also near capacity, Brasser said. 

"Another challenge is being able to discharge patients to the next setting, because those facilities are often coping with staffing," he said.

Beaumont Health is asking people not to visit its emergency centers unless their health care needs are urgent because its eight hospitals and two emergency centers are near capacity.