Michigan COVID hospitalizations exceed fall peak as situation worsens

Craig Mauger Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Lansing — The number of adults hospitalized in Michigan with COVID-19 reached 3,918 on Monday, surpassing the reported peak during the fall surge of the virus and further highlighting the state's troubling trend.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been climbing in Michigan for seven weeks, and the state continues to lead the nation in new infections per population over the last seven days, according to tracking by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials had hoped that increasing rates of vaccination among vulnerable populations, including the elderly, would prevent hospitalizations and deaths from hitting the numbers reported in late November and early December. But that hasn't played out with hospitalizations.

During the fall, the number of adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 peaked at 3,884 on Dec. 1, according to tracking by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Registered nurse Marlys Longanbach dons protective gear before seeing a patient in a COVID-19 ward at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. Michigan hit a new high for hospitalized adults with 3,918 on Monday, surpassing the peak set in the fall.

The current hospitalization numbers are similar to those of mid-April 2020 during the state's initial wave of the virus. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services began releasing COVID-19 inpatient numbers for April 8, 2020, and hit a high of 3,986 on April 12, 2020.

Multiple hospitals have been reporting that they're operating at or near capacity, including McLaren Port Huron, the largest health facility in St. Clair County. St. Clair County leads all Michigan counties for new cases per population over the last 14 days.

The 186-bed McLaren Port Huron was operating at 100% capacity Monday morning, said Dr. John Brooks, the hospital's chief medical officer. When the hospital has had to transfer patients with more acute needs to other facilities, there have been difficulties and delays, Brooks said.

"We’re basically being told at this stage in the game that they don’t have room," Brooks said of other hospitals in southeast Michigan.

One person who didn't have COVID-19 had to wait five days to be transferred, Brooks said. The patients coming to the Port Huron hospital tend to be younger than they were in the fall, but there are people in their 40s and 50s who are "really sick," the doctor added.

St. Clair County officials have requested help with nurse staffing and some supplies from the state of Michigan, said Justin Westmiller, director of homeland security and emergency management for the county.

Westmiller and Brooks suggested that the Whitmer administration should send more vaccines and people to help distribute them to the county.

St. Clair County has reported 2,845 new COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days, one new infection for each 56 residents. The nearby counties of Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola rank second, third and fourth for new cases per population over the last two weeks.

As of now, St. Clair County is 79th out of Michigan's 83 counties for the percentage of its adult population 16 years or older that has received complete vaccinations. According to state data, 19.4% of the county's adult population had their complete vaccinations compared with the statewide average of 25.3% through Thursday.

The county's health care system is taxed and struggling to keep up, Westmiller said.

"The thing we struggle with most is healthy nurses and aides and it is questionable whether help is coming," he said.

Last week, Michigan reported 45,817 new coronavirus cases, a 19-week high, and a positivity rate — the percentage of tests bringing positive results — of 16.4%, the highest weekly rate since last spring.

Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, chief of clinical services at Beaumont Health, said its eight hospitals have already surpassed inpatient numbers recorded in November and December.

"This is our new second biggest surge and we haven’t plateaued yet. The numbers are still going up. We’re up to 800 people in the system with COVID," Fischgrund said about Michigan's largest hospital system. "As much as it is exhausting, it’s also depressing."

"When we went through this once, we had no idea what we were in for because nobody had ever done this. Everybody assumed there we would be in a second surge at some point, and we got through it much better the second time," he said.

"But then when the vaccine came through in December, a lot of us thought we were past this and to be hit with it a third time, it’s exhausting but realistically it’s depressing to realize that we’re not as far along as we thought we’d be or as far along as we hoped we’d be."

On Monday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the answer to Michigan's "acute situation" with COVID-19 wasn't to surge vaccines to the state but to shut down the state and "flatten the curve." 

"Really what we need to do in those situations is shut things down," Walensky said.

"I think if we tried to vaccinate our way out of what is happening in Michigan, we will be disappointed that it took so long for the vaccine to work — to actually have the impact." 

The comment contradicted the approach of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration, which has declined to have her state health department director issue epidemic orders to shutter indoor dining, in-person high school classes or to end youth sports.

On Friday, the Democratic governor urged a two-week pause in these areas. Several restaurants and schools indicated they wouldn't make changes to their operations.

Brooks, the medical director at the Port Huron hospital, said he would like to see a pause on schools and school sports for a few weeks.

"It would probably help us tremendously," Brooks said.

During the fall surge, Whitmer suspended indoor dining at restaurants, in-person high school classes and other businesses on Nov. 18 when cases and hospitalizations were still climbing. Hospitalizations peaked nearly two weeks later. 

Ruthanne Sudderth, spokeswoman for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said Monday morning that she expected hospitalizations to exceed the fall peak this week.

"We urge everyone to do the things we know work — distancing, masking, hand hygiene and vaccination — to turn this trend around as quickly as possible," Sudderth said.