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West Michigan hospitals expect to reach capacity "in a matter of days"

courtesy of Spectrum Health
Spectrum Health's Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids
"We must change this trajectory of community spread," says Tina Freese Decker, CEO of Spectrum Health.

West Michigan’s hospitals are once again being forced to postpone surgeries and other inpatient medical procedures as the number of people infected with the coronavirus continues to skyrocket in the region.

Spectrum Health, the largest health care system in the region, also will no longer allow visitors in its hospitals and will only administer COVID-19 tests to people who show symptoms of the virus.

Hospital systems across the state canceled appointments and procedures in the spring, anticipating a surge in cases that never quite arrived in West Michigan. Hospital leaders have been trying to avoid similar cancelations and postponements so far this fall. But now they say they can’t avoid it. There are just too many COVID-19 patients.

“Even with these actions, the reality is that Spectrum Health and our hospitals across the state will be hitting their capacity in a matter of days,” said Tina Freese Decker, CEO of Spectrum Health, West Michigan’s largest health care system.  “And so we must change this trajectory of community spread.”

Freese Decker said the number of people hospitalized at Spectrum because of the coronavirus tripled in the past 20 days.

Mercy Health Muskegon hospital also announced it’s postponing inpatient surgeries because of the rise in COVID cases. The hospital reported 115 confirmed inpatient cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, double the number it reported just a week ago.

Officials with Spectrum Health held a briefing with media via Zoom on Wednesday to talk about the current situation and plead for more people in the community to help stop the spread of the virus.

https://vimeo.com/478184058">Spectrum Health West Michigan Media Briefing 11.11.20 from https://vimeo.com/spectrumhealthsystem">Spectrum Health on Vimeo.

“This is very serious,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan. “We have been in contact with every single hospital in our region. Everyone is feeling it the same way. And we are getting to a point where if we don’t have the public helping us, you’re going to see a lot more patients in the hospital, a lot more patients die.”

Particularly alarming, Elmouchi says, is that an increasing percentage of people in the community are testing positive for the virus, suggesting the spread is accelerating even as hospitals reach capacity.

Elmouchi says Spectrum Health administers, on average, about 4,000 COVID-19 tests per day. In the summer, only about three percent came back positive. Now, the positivity rate is nearing 15%.

“Our testing positivity continues to increase,” Elmouchi said. “That tells us that over the coming weeks, we will see a markedly increased number of patients in our hospitals with COVID-19.”

With more people in the area seeking a test for COVID-19, Elmouchi says the hospital system is also putting new restrictions on who can get tested. Starting Wednesday, Spectrum will only give a COVID-19 test to people who are showing symptoms of the virus. Elmouchi says limiting tests will help ensure that tests come back quickly.

He says there are still enough tests available, at least for the next few weeks.

Similarly, supplies of personal protective equipment and ventilators don’t seem to be as much of a concern for Spectrum Health or other hospital systems as they were in the spring. Instead, hospital leaders say staffing is the biggest constraint on being able to treat the influx of patients.

Elmouchi says Spectrum Health is trying to recruit health care workers from other regions, similar to what hospital systems in Detroit and New York did in the spring. But this time there just aren’t enough workers to go around.  

“There are so many hot spots across the country right now, even across the state, that essentially everyone would be competing for a very limited pool of extra staff," he said. "That will be a big challenge.”

Another possibility as cases continue to rise is a field hospital for West Michigan, similar to when Detroit opened the TCF Center to treat COVID-19 patients in the spring.

Elmouchi says Spectrum Health and other hospital systems are actively discussing the option, but once again, he says the biggest limitation is the availability of health care workers.  

“Even if we had another site with hundreds of beds available, staffing will absolutely be an issue if we got to that point,” he says.

With few options for stopping the spread of the virus on their own, hospital leaders and public health officials continue to plead with people in the community to take steps to reduce their own exposure. That means masks and plenty of hand washing. And it means cutting back on any unnecessary activities that could put you at risk – including holiday gatherings.

“Some of the simple things that we were able to do when we were outside, when the positivity rate was three percent or less, we just can’t do those right now,” Freese Decker said.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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