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With ER full, Muskegon hospital is now using a tent as a waiting room

This heated tent is now being used as the emergency department waiting room at Mercy Health Muskegon.
courtesy Mercy Health
This heated tent is now being used as the emergency department waiting room at Mercy Health Muskegon.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 rose again in Michigan on Friday, and hospital systems continued to scramble to find new ways to treat the surge in patients.

At Mercy Health Muskegon, the hospital now is using a tent in the parking lot as a waiting room for the emergency department. The usual waiting room has been converted to care for patients, and it’s not the only place that’s been reconfigured.

“There is a conference room in our emergency department, we long ago actually transitioned that to take care of patients within that conference room,” says Dr. Justin Gill, chief medical officer for Mercy Health Muskegon. “We have a number of hall beds in our emergency department which usually we don’t have.”

Gill says the hospital’s ICUs are operating at 140-150% of their usual capacity, as more staff are calling in sick, some with COVID-19. But he says even though the hospital is stretched well past capacity, it has to treat all the patients as they come in.

The tent outside Mercy Health Muskegon's emergency department.
courtesy Mercy Health
The tent outside Mercy Health Muskegon's emergency department.

“In our case, we are the only hospital in our community,” Gill says. “So if we shut down, where do our community members go for care? It really isn’t an option for us.”

Across the state, 4,412 people in Michigan’s hospitals have a confirmed case of COVID-19 as of Friday, according to state data. That’s an increase compared to a week ago, and is near a record number of COVID patients that was set in December. The state says 835 of those patients were in ICUs, which is also an increase compared to a week ago.

Also on Friday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said the state received its first doses of new antiviral pills to treat the disease caused by COVID-19. MDHHS says the state now has a limited supply of paxlovid and molnupiravir, two drugs that received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for treating COVID. The drugs have been shown to reduce symptoms for some people when taken early.

Because of the limited supply, MDHHS says the drugs will only be available to certain people who are most at risk for developing severe COVID symptoms.

And state health leaders said everyone in Michigan should continue to take precautions to stop the spread of the virus.

“It’s important to remember these drugs are not a substitution for protecting yourself by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in public places,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, MDHHS chief medical executive, in a statement. “Getting vaccinated continues to be the best protection against severe illness and hospitalization, and we urge all Michiganders over age 5 to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Continue to wear well-fitting masks over your nose and mouth, test and social distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, avoid large gatherings and get vaccinated and boosted if you haven't already."

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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