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Federal medical teams arrive to assist health care workers in overwhelmed Michigan hospitals

A COVID patient being attended by healthcare workers.
Mongkolchon Akesin/Mongkolchon - stock.adobe.com
A COVID patient being attended by healthcare workers.

Federal military help arrived Friday in two Michigan hospitals, to support frontline health care workers overwhelmed by a near-record number of COVID-19 patients, as the state experiences the highest daily case count since the pandemic began.

“Today’s our day one,” said Lt. Colonel Stephen Duryea, officer in charge of the Department of Defense Medical Response team that arrived at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn on Friday.

The team, which includes 14 critical care nurses, four doctors, three respiratory therapists and a three-member “command and control team” has a 30-day assignment to work with patients.

“Our team previously did this mission in Mississippi for 60 days,” Duryea said during a media briefing with hospital officials Friday. “So we have a lot of experience and lessons learned to hopefully apply here in the state of Michigan.”

Across the state, a separate team of 20 military doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists arrived at Spectrum Health hospital in Grand Rapids, where the number of COVID-19 patients is now well above any other time so far in the pandemic. (A third team has been approved for Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw and will arrive December 12, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office announced Thursday.)

“I got to meet the team this morning,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan. “Honestly had goosebumps meeting them, they were amazing.”

Elmouchi and other hospital leaders say the military’s medical assistance is badly needed as the number of new patients sick with the virus continues to surge throughout the state. In Grand Rapids in particular, hospitals are already operating at capacity, with exhausted and beleaguered staff. Elmouchi said Spectrum Health’s Intensive Care Units are at 140% percent of their previous capacity for treating patients.

As the number of sick people has skyrocketed, the hospital has set up beds throughout the hospital building, in places that previously weren’t meant for medical care. And despite being the largest health system in West Michigan, Spectrum has had to delay about 1,100 surgeries since the current surge began. In the past month, they’ve denied some 700 transfer requests from other hospitals and medical centers that can’t provide higher levels of care.

Staff at other hospitals in and around Grand Rapids are feeling the same strain. Mercy Health’s St. Mary’s hospital in Grand Rapids is 98% full, and ICUs are 100% full according to Matt Biersack, president of the hospital. At University of Michigan Health - West, which has a hospital in Wyoming, just south of Grand Rapids, the hospital has been at 90% capacity for the past three months.

“It is difficult,” says Peter Hahn, president and CEO of the hospital. “And this round is definitely the most difficult for a variety of reasons.”

At Henry Ford Health System in southeast Michigan, leaders says they are “very close” to asking for federal assistance, too.

“If these numbers [of COVID patients] continue to go up 10% or 20% every couple of weeks, the way that we're seeing it, we will be looking for alternative help quite quickly,” says Bob Riney, Henry Ford’s president and chief operating officer. But there’s no silver bullet here, he cautions.

“In many ways, what the federal support is offering is 22 FTEs [full time employees] per hospital coming from the Department of Defense,” he said. “Which is help, but it's a relatively small number in concert with the overall staffing challenges that we're experiencing.”

Exhausted, frustrated healthcare workers

Nearly two years and now four surges into the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders for each of the hospital systems say the wear on staff and patients is plainly visible.

“Even wearing a mask, you can tell from the eyes what’s going on,” says Hahn. “There’s tremendous stress, tremendous heartache, but there’s also courage.”

“I’ll just say the theme: tears,” says Dr. Elmouchi, describing his latest visit to an ICU team, which he says was set up in an area of the hospital not previously dedicated to intensive care. Tears, he says from team members exhausted after 20 months of non-stop pandemic care. And tears from family members saying goodbye to a loved one.

“This is happening every day, over and over again at all of our hospitals. It is not a pretty sight. It is not something any of us wish upon anyone.”

As more hospitals fill up, and even non-COVID patients have to wait for care, hospital leaders say yet another crisis is emerging. More careworkers are being assaulted by the patients they’re trying to help. “It feels unrelenting,” says Dr. Matt Biersack, of Mercy Health St. Mary’s. “As time spent in the emergency department waiting, as care is strained and we wait longer for care … there tends to be even more hostility and even more impatience.”

It’s not just a problem at one hospital. Leaders at Beaumont, Spectrum Health, Mercy Health and University of Michigan Health-West say all of their staff are facing it. At Spectrum Health, Elmouchi says there’s been an “amazing increase” in assaults on health care workers. “Every single day we have a report out at the lunch hour about workplace violence issues, and every single day we hear about workplace violence,” Elmouchi says. “Nurses being hit, scratched, spit on, yelled at. Doctors the same.”

Leaders say that increased aggression from patients is one of many reasons healthcare workers are leaving the profession, which puts an even greater strain on those who remain, and could contribute to shortages in staff well into the future.

“If you know a health care worker, check in with them,” Biersack says. “Tell them you support them. Thank them for the work that they’ve done. Demonstrate that you care by wearing a mask when you’re out in public.”

A preventable surge 

Above all else, there is one thing people in the community can do that would help, hospital leaders agreed: get vaccinated.

Unlike previous surges, this one could have been prevented if more people had gotten vaccinated, they say. Now they’re pleading with anyone who’s still hesitant to get the shot. “One of the reasons that people should care about this even if they’re not terribly personally concerned about COVID, is it could impact any other part of your health. And then when you look at the caregivers … people are really struggling. This is needless death, day after day.”

Indeed, the overwhelming majority of hospitalized COVID patients aren’t vaccinated. In Michigan, 87% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 86% of COVID deaths since January are among people who aren’tfully vaccinated.

Yet hospitals are seeing numbers near or even above the highs of previous surges, back before vaccines were widely available. Henry Ford currently has 420 COVID patients admitted, and another 30 in the emergency departments waiting for beds, said Dr. Adnan Munkarah.

“When we compare it to a year ago, December 4th, 2020, we had at that time 499 patients. So we are getting very close to the numbers that we had a year ago, despite the fact that now we have vaccines that are available. Unfortunately, we are not at the rate that we would like to see from a vaccination perspective in the community. But we do have a solution that can help us.”

About 54% of Michiganders are fully vaccinated, according to state data, and about 1.5 million people have received booster doses.

At Henry Ford Macomb hospital, Riney described a conversation this week with the nurse manager of a completely full ICU.

“She said, ‘I have a stellar team that's doing exceptional work, but I have 21 beds, 21 patients, all COVID positive, very ill in my ICU, and not a single one of those patients is vaccinated.’ And she said, ‘It's heartbreaking for me to tell my staff: please continue to give up your holidays. Please continue to work six shifts in a row. Please continue to stress yourself beyond imagination. When the perception is that the community is not meeting us halfway in this fight.’”

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.
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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