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In the UP, hospitals near a breaking point as COVID surges

SJ Objio for Unsplash @sjobjio

For one ICU nurse in Marquette, Thanksgiving is her sixth day straight working 12-hour shifts caring for COVID-19 patients.

“When we do three, four, five days in a row, working strictly COVID, it's physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting,” says this ICU nurse (we’re not using her name to protect her job.)

But staff at UP Health System Marquette have started picking up extra shifts, she says. Otherwise, they don’t have enough nurses to treat the COVID and non-COVID patients separately. Going in and out of what they call “clean” and “dirty” rooms, wondering each time if they were bringing the virus to non-COVID patients, was just too much.   

“There's always the fear in the back of your mind: did I do this correctly? Did I wash my hands well enough? Did I inadvertently get COVID droplets in my hair? Was my hair covered properly? I mean, there's all this second guessing things that you have in the back of your mind,” says Stephanie DePetro, an OR nurse at Marquette and the vice president of the Michigan Nurses Association.

As of Monday, six Michigan hospitals across the state report they’ve reached 100% capacity, and many more are over 90% full. In Sault Sainte Marie, the War Memorial Hospital currently sits at 92% capacity.

“What those numbers don’t show is that the last couple of days, we’ve had to transfer six patients each day to other hospitals [in Petoskey and Traverse City] who had open beds, because we were at our capacity,” says David Jahn, the hospital’s President and CEO.

“And as of yesterday, five of those beds were full. Unfortunately, one of those patients passed away overnight.”

Short-staffed, nurses worry: "Can I get to them soon enough?"

For those working in hospitals like Marquette, which bills itself as the only Level I or Level II trauma center in a 160-mile radius, there’s nowhere else for these patients to go.

Nurses know the cavalry isn’t coming for them, either, DePetro says. 

“We don’t have travel nurses coming. They’re expended all across the country, and we just don’t have the bodies coming here.”

The most recent COVID inpatient numbers UP Health System Marquette provided the state health department put the hospital at just 69% capacity, with 10 COVID patients in the ICU and 33 admitted overall. 

But DePetro says that just doesn’t match what nurses are seeing on the ground.

“Right now on our ICU, I believe it's been running close to 100% capacity,” she says. “I know that there were potential plans to try to shuffle patients around to open up beds. But you're looking at a hospital that's full.”

A spokesperson for the UP Health System didn’t return multiple requests for comment.

Already the hospital has converted the cardiac wing across the hall from the ICU into an overflow space, a sort of “step down” area for those in less critical condition.

But it’s still not enough, the ICU nurse says. COVID patients can take sudden sharp turns for the worse. 

"It is scary, because if I'm in another patient's room, all gowned up, I'm worried about the patient next door. Is that patient okay? And if they're not, can I get to them soon enough? We need help. We need extra hands." - ICU nurse working at UP Health System Marquette

“Every two hours, we’re moving our patients to make sure they don’t get bed sores. I’m doing that physical labor by myself, whether that patients be 50 lbs or 500 lbs. I’m moving them alone. If we had extra people - and not even extra people, just the appropriate amount of people to make sure that while I'm in one room, the other patient is OK. That's what we worry about," the nurse says.

At one point, nurses in the overflow COVID unit were using “baby monitors,” as the ICU nurse calls them: small wireless devices to keep an eye on patients when they can’t be in the room with them. The stress is taking an emotional and physical toll on staff, DePetro says.

“So they go home feeling defeated and feeling guilty for not being able to provide the care they know and they want to provide,” she says. “You can see it on the nurses' faces when they come to work every day.”

If nothing changes, the consequences could be severe.

“I can honestly say that the nurses that work at this hospital are diligent in their duties,” DePetro says. “They work as a team together, and they count on each other to help avoid making those mistakes.

“But I think if we continue on the path that we are continuing on, where the infection rate just keeps rising and rising and rising, it's human nature. People make mistakes. Is it happening now in the hospital setting? I don't see that now. But is it a potential? Absolutely.”

The nurses’ union at Marquette says they’ve asked the company that owns the hospital, Duke Lifepoint, and CEO Gar Atchison, for help. They want more support staff, and lower nurse-to-patient ratios. They’d like to know what the surge plan is, if there is one.

“We did put out an information request to the hospital to provide us with a surge plan that has been mentioned in media statements from the CEO, Gar Atchison,” DePetro says. “...And so far, we have not been provided with that surge plan. So everything is all up in the air.”

WCMU Reporter Ben Thorp contributed to this story.

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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