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Munson Healthcare moves to "level red" for the first time as prolonged COVID surge strains system

Taylor Wizner

Northern Michigan’s largest hospital network said a surge of COVID cases in the region has pushed the system past its capacity.

Munson Healthcare has moved its pandemic response to "level red" for the first time since COVID-19 circulated in the U.S., officials said during a virtual news conference Tuesday. To manage the caseload, Munson hospitals are pausing some non-essential services in order to free up more healthcare workers to treat COVID and urgent care patients.

The system has reached peak hospitalizations, with 99 COVID in-patients spread across six of its northwest lower Michigan hospitals. The test positivity rate for the healthcare region is also a hair higher than the April surge—at 17.9%.

“[The fall 2020 and spring 2021] surges were pretty quick in how they increased and declined,” said Munson’s Dr. Christine Nefcy. “This one has been longer and a little bit flatter, which is obviously impacting the health care industry pretty significantly.”

This slow and steady surge hit Munson at a weak moment. The hospitals are experiencing a large number of urgent care patients and facing staff shortages.

“Obviously we didn’t come to this decision [to move to "level red"] lightly,” Dr. Nefcy said. “This is in fact the first time in Munson healthcare history that we have made that decision.”

This time around children are being hospitalized at higher rates. Compared to October 2020, there were 800 more pediatric hours logged last month. More pediatric patients were admitted and they stayed at the hospital longer, Munson officials said.

In response to the growing needs, Nefcy said they’ll scale back elective procedures as well as work in clinics and labs. They’ll also pause sleep disorder and dietary programs, and they are considering adjusting hours of operation.

Northern Michigan’s surge corresponds with increases throughout the state that show a flatter, and more prolonged increase—as opposed to much of the nation, which is seeing its COVID rates drop.

An infectious disease doctor at Munson, Dr. Christopher Ledtke, said he’s not sure why the state isn’t mirroring the country.

“It’s not always clear why one area is affected more than the another,” he said. “One thing that is clear that we’re seeing is that the Delta variant is obviously much more transmissible.”

Ledtke said even though vaccination rates are relatively high in northern Michigan—61.8% of eligible residents, now including children under five, have initiated doses—he’s seeing COVID breakthrough cases where people are getting sick.

“The vaccine, although it significantly decreases your risk of getting infected or hospitalized, it’s not as effective against the Delta variant,” Ledtke said. “It’s also clear that vaccine waning immunity is legitimate.”

Munson officials said there are other factors impacting the surge. There have been high numbers of COVID infections among school-aged kids, which make up about 20% of recent cases. Nefcy said the virus may be transmitting more because the community has largely dropped the COVID mitigation measures they practiced earlier, such as social distancing and wearing masks indoors.

Even though it’s been a steady increase for a while, local trends have worsened in the last week. In Grand Traverse County, over the last eight days COVID cases have shot up 40%. The county’s health officer Wendy Hirschenberger said what seemed like a plateau a few weeks ago is now showing signs of reaching the highest numbers the county saw back in April.

The situation may be even worse in some rural northwest lower counties, where as many as one in four or five tests are coming back positive—indicating not enough people are getting tested and there are likely more positive cases.

IPR's Taylor Wizner is passionate about empowering communities through solid reporting.
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