Michigan to get federal help with medical staffing amid COVID surge

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The federal government has granted a request from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for staffing assistance to support medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients amid a surge in infections in Michigan.

Under the agreement, two teams of 22 members each will help staff at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

The teams will include registered nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists and will arrive next week. They will begin treating patients immediately and provide support for the next 30 days, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

"Hospitals are at capacity across the state, particularly in Metro Detroit and West Michigan, and this is taking a tremendous toll on our health care workers," said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department.

Earlier this week, federal health officials approved additional allocations of monoclonal antibodies requested by the state and have been providing technical assistance to help state leaders scale up their operations and set up new sites, the White House said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also facilitated the delivery of tens of thousands of rapid tests to the state.

HHS also has virtually deployed a hospital assessment team to aid the state in reviewing its hospital needs, identifying local and regional solutions and assisting in requesting further federal assistance, the White House said.

The news came amid a spike in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Michigan and a day before the Thanksgiving holiday. The Michigan Health & Hospital Association asked the state for assistance Sunday because "the need for support had become a statewide issue," said John Karasinski, spokesman for the group that advocates on behalf of hospitals.

Michigan's COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates had been slowly deteriorating for months. Then, over the last three weeks, the numbers jumped upward as temperatures outside declined and more activities moved indoors.

The tally of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state hit a seven-month high Monday at 3,699 and then grew Wednesday to 3,901, a 22% jump over the past seven days. Last week, the percentage of tests for the virus bringing positive results reached the highest weekly rate in more than a year.

The wide majority of people testing positive for the virus and being hospitalized with it are unvaccinated, according to data from the state health department. Whitmer highlighted the detail in a statement Wednesday.

"We can all do our part to help reduce the strain on our hospital systems by getting vaccinated, making an appointment to get a booster dose, and continuing to take precautions to keep ourselves and loved ones safe," the Democratic governor said.

It's been somewhat common over the 20 months of the pandemic for states experiencing surges in COVID-19 to receive medical staffing assistance from the federal government. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced last week that two emergency staffing teams were coming to his state to provide support. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis also have requested federal health care teams, but it's unclear whether the requests have been granted. 

Michigan and Minnesota have had among the highest cases per population in the past week or so.

The White House said its COVID-19 Coordinator, Jeff Zients, called Whitmer on Monday following a call between their staffs on Nov. 18. Also, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky spoke to Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive, on Tuesday. 

The November request from Michigan was the state's first for Department of Defense support for hospital staffing, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the state health department.

On Tuesday, Michigan led the nation in new cases per population over the last seven days,according to tracking by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Michigan Health & Hospital Association released a statement on Monday, describing the situation as "alarming."

The state is approaching "the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan since the pandemic began," according to the statement, made on behalf of chief medical officers of Michigan’s community hospitals.

"We cannot wait any longer for Michigan to correct course; we need your help now to end this surge and ensure our hospitals can care for everyone who needs it," the medical officers added.

The state Department of Health and Human Services also submitted a request for federal Veterans Affairs hospitals to open beds for civilian transfers, resulting in the John D. Dingell Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit opening beds. The initial agreement is in place for 30 days and may be extended.

On Wednesday morning, U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, had sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking for an increase in COVID-19 resources for Michigan, including therapeutics, rapid testing supplies and military medical personnel to assist hospitals.

"Currently, there are reports of COVID-19 rapid testing shortages in Michigan, as well as an increased need for therapeutics, including monoclonal antibody treatments, specifically Regeneron," the two lawmakers wrote.

The letter followed a briefing by Hertel to Michigan's congressional delegation Tuesday. Dingell told The Detroit News that after the letter was sent to Biden, Hertel received a call Wednesday from federal officials saying the outstanding requests outlined in the letter would be addressed.

The Republican-led state Legislature remains in talks with the Whitmer administration about how to distribute up to $10 billion in unspent federal COVID dollars. 

Last week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a public health advisory, recommending people wear masks at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.