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Inside the ER as another surge of COVID cases hits the state

Clay Banks

Michigan’s surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations over the past couple of weeks — with some hospitals nearing bed capacity — has shocked many back to reality about where we are in the pandemic. 

“Our volumes in the emergency department are going up, and the numbers are as significant as they had been with the prior surge, although the types of complaints and patients are changing,” said Dr. Patricia Nouhan, an emergency room doctor at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit.

Nouhan says the patients that are currently being admitted to the ER are generally younger and less sick. That could be due to older and immunocompromised individuals receiving the vaccination. It might also be helped by the fact that after more than a year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency departments have established effective diagnosis and treatment protocols. 

“And so we're able to treat the patients quicker and it actually, frankly, has become more routine for us to start these medications and know how to disposition the patients to the proper level of care within the hospital,” Nouhan said.

One likely factor in the increase of COVID-19 hospitalizations is the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, which is more contagious than the strain that was first circulating last spring. St. John Hospital, like many other state hospitals, is required to send a percentage of their COVID-19 tests to the state for lab testing of the B.1.1.7 variant. Those results, Nouhan says, show “higher and higher numbers of that variant.”

While healthcare personnel lacked ventilators and proper PPE at the start of the pandemic in 2020, that is not the main strain on hospitals in this third surge. Rather, Nouhan says, it’s the lack of nursing staff. 

“Across the country it's very clear that we have a lack of nursing and we're all kind of vying for those same individuals to help us. And so there are there are commodity, hot commodity,” said Nouhan.

Nouhan said the healthcare system has come a long way at being able to effectively treat COVID-19 and  hospitals, for the most part, are in a much better position. Now, they just need people on the outside to do their part. 

“We sometimes lack in personnel, nursing personnel, like I mentioned, but we just need the population to follow through on masking, to follow through on social distancing, and to get vaccinated,” she said.

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