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Nearly 2,000 health care workers at 3 hospital systems tested positive for COVID last week

Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit
Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio
At Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, beds are being closed because of staffing shortages.

Three of the largest health systems in Michigan say a combined nearly 2,000 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19 in just the last week, worsening hospital staffing shortages and forcing systems to close beds and delay hundreds of surgeries and medical procedures.

At Henry Ford Health System, 686 workers have tested positive over the last week. That’s a fraction of its roughly 33,000 employees. But it’s also a threefold increase since just mid-December, said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, chief clinical officer and executive vice president.

“The continuous spread of COVID within our community not only puts a strain on our health systems because of the [higher] bed occupancy…but also the spread exposes our frontline health workers to community spread,” Munkarah said Tuesday. “And accordingly, those health workers are not available to be able to be part of our teams taking care of our patients and further jeopardizing our ability to (provide) the safest care.”

Staff shortages have closed 97 of some 1,550 beds across three Henry Ford hospitals in Detroit, Jackson, and Wyandotte. It’s also limiting how many COVID tests the health system can perform.

“The biggest challenge, honestly, that you are having at this point is the ability to have enough staff to do the swabbing,” Munkarah said. "This is the biggest concern. It is not the ability to do the tests, because we can run them in big batches. We can run them on machines. But we don't have enough staff to do the nasal swabbing for more and more testing.”

At Spectrum Health, the largest system in West Michigan, 709 staff have tested positive since last Wednesday, out of some 31,000. Worker shortages there were already leading to longer wait times in the ER and drastically reducing the number of transfer patients Spectrum can accept from smaller, rural health systems.

Since December, the University of Michigan’s Michigan Medicine has had to postpone more than 200 surgeries and reduce transfers because of both staff and bed shortages. In the last week of December, 572 staff out of some 30,000 employees tested positive. It’s a “dire situation,” spokesperson Beata Mostafavi said.

“These are heartbreaking decisions that we know have significant health impacts for our patients and their families,” she said.

“We urge the public to help us fight the pandemic through the most effective tools, including getting vaccinated and boosted if eligible and continuing to wear masks. These lifesaving measures could significantly reduce the impact of the virus for families, health care workers and communities.”

Michigan health officials announced last week they would adopt the CDC’s controversial, shortened quarantine guidance for health care workers. But Dr. Dennis Cunningham, chief of infection prevention for Henry Ford, said it was “good news.”

“If we have an ill employee, they are quarantined until seven days after their first symptoms appeared,” he said. “But they also have to have improvement in their symptoms. If they're still febrile or [have] no improvement at all, we would keep them off work, because our first priority is to make sure that we don't infect our patients.”

Even so, it’s a constant balancing act to decide which patients need care the most, administrators said. In previous surges, many outpatient treatments would have taken a back seat. But Munkarah said the pandemic has taught them that delaying that care can be just as risky as delaying it for someone in the ER.

“Delaying care [for]… time-sensitive conditions like cardiac disease, cancer, sometimes severe lung disease, some other illnesses can cause significant harm to a patient,” he said.

"So we are trying to prioritize pace of acuity both in the inpatient and outpatient [settings] to make sure that we navigate [this] over the next few weeks.”

Health system models predict it’s going to get worse in the coming weeks. “Hopefully we’ll be wrong,” Munkarah said. “But we are concerned that our numbers, our staff that continue to test positive, is going to be [going] up and up and up.”

Updated: January 5, 2022 at 1:22 PM EST
This story was updated January 5 at 1:20 pm to add Michigan Medicine's staff test results and Wednesday's staff results at Spectrum.
Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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