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West Michigan hospital system once again stretched to capacity as COVID cases continue to rise

courtesy of Spectrum Health

Updated, November 16, 2021 at 9:18 a.m.:

The state of Michigan released the latest COVID hospitalization numbers Monday, which show a 20% increase over last week's numbers. And numbers are up across the entire region.

In West Michigan, 97 patients are on ventilators — which is almost as many as Detroit, which has quadruple the metro population as Grand Rapids. The Spectrum Health dashboard showed yesterday 356 COVID patients, which is essentially tied with the amount of COVID patients they had at the peak of the pandemic. The difference this time is that the hospital is treating more patients for non-COVID illnesses and we may not yet be at the peak of this fourth surge.

Original post, November 9, 2021 at 5:19 p.m.

It’s not over. It’s just different.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has been on a slow and steady rise in Michigan since August. The number still hasn’t reached the levels seen during previous surges of the virus. But for Spectrum Health in West Michigan, hospitals are once again reaching capacity, and staff are being stretched to their limits.

A senior Spectrum executive says the overall number of admitted patients is at “persistent record highs” across the hospital system.

“There’s probably not a day that goes by that some, if not even sometimes a majority, of our units are in a red staffing level, meaning that we’re short-staffed,” says Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan.

“They have rashes of 30 year old and 40 year old patients that are on the ventilator and actually dying. We’ve had multiple deaths in that age range just in the last few weeks.”
Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan

Elmouchi says Spectrum has expanded from three ICU teams to 10 ICU teams in Grand Rapids to help handle the swell of patients. And after more than a year of battling the virus, already overwhelmed frontline healthcare workers are confronted with daily heartbreak.

“They’re dealing with situations they’ve never dealt with before,” Elmouchi says. “They have rashes of 30-year-old and 40-year-old patients that are on the ventilator and actually dying. We’ve had multiple deaths in that age range just in the last few weeks.”

Eighty-five percent of patients admitted for COVID-19 are not vaccinated, Elmouchi says. Those who are vaccinated are older, on average, and are more likely to have other health issues.

Elmouchi says healthcare workers are also facing demands from patients to offer unproven, or even harmful treatments, even as the patients’ own health declines.

“That’s a situation that we just never saw in healthcare on a wide scale before,” Elmouchi says. He notes that the positivity rate for COVID tests in West Michigan is also on the rise, suggesting the current steady rise of patients won’t let up anytime soon.

“Because we’re busy, there are going to be more waits,” Elmouchi says. “And please please please, don’t get angry with health care providers.”

He says as Spectrum’s hospitals have filled up, more nurses have faced aggression from patients - screaming, punching, kicking. It was always a part of the job for frontline healthcare workers, but it’s gotten much worse recently - a big change from the early days of the pandemic when people cheered at the end of nursing shifts and sent food to the hospital.

For the workers still caring for the people infected with the virus, it is definitely not over. It’s just different.

Michigan’s hospitals say they’re in a dangerous position

Dr. Brad Uren's conversation with Stateside.

Maybe a metaphor would help here. Think of it this way, explained Dr. Brad Uren, who was a guest on Stateside Wednesday.

“If you think about your favorite restaurant, where you’re usually able to walk in and get a table right away, and you walk in one day expecting to be seated right away and you find that there is a large party taking up 10-15% of the spaces. That party isn’t filling the restaurant, but it’s effectively taken away your ability to get what you wanted when you needed it.”

And that's what's happening in Michigan hospitals right now, said Uren, an emergency medicine professor at the University of Michigan.

While COVID-19 patients are only around 10% of the overall patient population, they are competing for resources with people who end up in the hospital with seasonal viruses like the flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Add to that nursing shortages and hospital staff burnout, and you've got a recipe for less-than-ideal patient care.

In a recent opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press, Uren warned that health care workers are conditioned "to work under strain that can progress to dangerous levels before the cracks start to show." While he says he hasn't seen any data on how the overcrowding in hospitals is impacting patient outcomes, he can say that it is impacting the timeliness with which they can receive care.

"And that may have some downstream effects," he said. "So we need to act now to try to mitigate those time challenges before they become bigger issues for the health care system and for patients."

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.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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