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Nolan Finley talks with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan about allowing hospitals to offer more procedures during the pandemic. The Detroit News

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The irony that hospitals that were once worried they'd be overrun with COVID-19 patients are now laying off workers because their beds are empty is not lost on Jeremiah J. Hodshire, chief operating officer of Hillsdale Hospital.

"(H)ospitals are laying off nursing staff throughout Michigan because we can’t sign their paychecks, yet we are expected to treat the sickest of patients in our communities without interruption," Hodshire writes in an open letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. "We petition you to get Michigan hospitals working again in communities where the numbers of COVID-19 are low and where we have zero in-hospital transmission of this virus. The lives of our community members depend on it."

Specifically, Hodshire wants the governor to lift or loosen her order banning non-essential medical procedures, including elective surgeries.

Hodshire's hospital in rural Hillsdale County has not had the expected influx of virus patients. In fact, 22 rural counties in Michigan have had no COVID-19 cases.

Yet their hospitals have had to sit in partial shutdown under orders issued six weeks ago by Whitmer while their revenue has dwindled and their survival is now in doubt. 

For a hospital like Hillsdale, surgeries make up 20 to 30% of their net revenues. Most of their operating rooms remain closed.

Hodshire says there is a real possibility that Hillsdale Hospital and many other rural medical facilities won't survive the shutdown unless they can restart surgeries in the next week or so.

The same is true for a wide range of clinics, dental offices and other medical centers that have been impacted by the shutdown order.

It's not just a rural issue. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, noting that Detroit hospitals have hundreds of empty beds, called last week for a resumption of the treatment of those with chronic illnesses, as well as cancer screening and joint replacements.

Duggan, who headed Detroit Medical Center before becoming mayor, said he believes hospitals can safely resume most operations.

The state’s chief medical executive, Joneigh Khaldun, did send a clarification of the orders to hospitals and clinics Sunday stressing there is “flexibility” built into them, and offering guidelines on best practices for reopening. But the original orders remain in place.

Whitmer defends her blanket approach to the shutdown as an adherence to science. But there's no scientific support for locking down hospitals in areas not hit by COVID-19, or for denying patients access to screenings and treatments that could improve their health.

As Duggan noted, the worry should be that postponing procedures such as cancer screenings could lead to more deaths later on. 

The threat to the financial viability of hospitals stands as another example of the danger of Whitmer's contention that Michigan's emergency powers law allows her to effectively dismiss the Legislature. 

The people have representatives to state government for a good reason: to advocate for their interests and call attention to their problems. If those representatives had a voice in the shutdown, they could raise the alarm about the unintended consequences of this order.

Whitmer's slowness in recognizing the severe impact her orders are having on hospitals risks undoing the goal of those orders, which is to protect the health of Michiganians. 

If rural hospitals go bust, as Hosdhire warns they could in a matter of days, the long-term health prospects of Michigan residents will be much worse.

Operating rooms should be allowed to fully open today.  

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