91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dozens of Michigan hospitals are more than 90% full as pandemic surge pushes staff to limits

More than 1 in 5 beds in the state are filled with COVID patients.
Marcelo Leal
More than 1 in 5 beds in the state are filled with COVID patients.

Eight hospitals in Michigan are now at 100% capacity, and an additional 30 are over 90% full, according to state data released Friday.

The state’s healthcare system is so overwhelmed by the ongoing fourth surge of COVID-19 that some patients are waiting days in emergency departments for an ICU bed, said Dr. Jackie Pflaum-Carlson of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“I have a few that were down there for three or four days while awaiting the ICU," Pflaum-Carlson said. Statewide, 88% of all adult ICU beds in Michigan were occupied in the state's Friday data. The vast majority — almost 90% — of all patients hospitalized for COVID in the state were not fully vaccinated.

“We know that the [unvaccinated] patients are led astray by this social media or false information, and it's so heartbreaking to walk them down this path of death, knowing that it was preventable,” said Pflaum-Carlson.

Patients that I've talked to who are sick with COVID, who did not get vaccinated, have one regret. ... It's not getting vaccinated.
Detroit Dr. Jackie Pflaum-Carlson

“I think the majority of the patients that I've talked to who are sick with COVID, who did not get vaccinated, have one regret," she said. "It's not getting vaccinated."

"They all had different reasons," said Pflaum-Carlson. "For some of them, they didn't have time. They didn't want to take time off in case they felt sick from the vaccine. Their family member told them they shouldn't get it. You know, they all have different reasons, and they all have the same regret.”

Hospitals function best when they’re no more than 85% full, said Henry Ford Health System COO and president of healthcare operations Bob Riney.

“That’s because you have to allow for overflow and unintended consequences,” he said. “You have to be able to move patients based on changes in clinical conditions."

But for months, he said, the state's health systems have been operating at 98% to 100% occupancy. "That creates all sorts of challenges," Riney said. "We're not built or structured in any hospitals anywhere to go at 100% occupancy week, after week, after week, after week.”

About one out of every five hospital beds (22%) in the state was filled with COVID patients, although the number of confirmed adult COVID-19 patients ticked down slightly from a record high of 4,518 on Dec. 13 to 4,166 on Dec. 17. (An additional 51 children were hospitalized with confirmed COVID as well, state data show.)

The numbers were still beyond the previous records set in April 2020.

“The current wave’s hospitalizations are now at the highest point since the beginning of the pandemic,” an state health department report this week warned. That same report showed that over the previous week, Michigan had the highest inpatient bed utilization in the country, and the second-highest use of adult ICU beds.

At the same time, deaths in the state are increasing. In just one recent week, from Nov. 30 to Dec., 6, 675 Michiganders died of COVID. The relentless nature of the pandemic continuously exhausts healthcare workers.

“I think in the beginning, we all really pushed each other to know we can get through this,” said Pflaum-Carlson.

“You make eye contact across the room with somebody who is struggling, and you feel the tears coming, and you would talk to each other," she said. "I think we're all still trying to do that. But with each passing day and each increased patient load and each death, it gets harder and harder to maintain that positive attitude and maintain that hope.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.