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Michigan Medicine warns omicron is pushing hospitals to the brink

hospital exterior
Michigan Medicine

The University of Michigan health system is facing its worst crisis point of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, the system’s leaders said on Tuesday.

Michigan Medicine held a press conference on social media Tuesday to spread the message about the dire state of health care—and plead with people to take measures to slow the spread of COVID.

The omicron variant, coming on the heels of Michigan’s late delta wave, is crushing Michigan hospitals. On Monday, the state hit an all-time high for COVID hospitalizations, with 4,580 adult inpatients.

Michigan Medicine officials say its intensive care unit is nearly full, and its cardiac and pediatric ICUs are already at capacity. That’s severely limited the health system’s ability to accept critically-ill transfer patients from other hospitals.

Officials are especially concerned about the situation at Mott Children’s Hospital. COVID admissions there have more than doubled since December, and up to 40% of children coming in for surgery are COVID-positive. Michigan Medicine officials said that earlier this month, about 50% of COVID-positive pediatric patients were hospitalized due to COVID, while the other 50% were hospitalized for other reasons.

I am very worried,” said Luanne Ewald, chief operating officer at Mott. “There's a very real chance that we won't have enough beds to care for these critically-ill children if the spread of omicron continues to increase. There are only a few places in the state that can handle specialized pediatric care. We are struggling with the volume of cases.”

Michigan Medicine has about 140 COVID patients right now, which is actually fewer than it had in the spring off 2020. But this time, a lack of health care workers is making the situation worse. Just since January 1, more than 700 Michigan Medicine employees have tested positive for COVID, leading to what one system official called the most serious staffing shortage it’s ever seen.

Michigan Medicine has stuck with a 10-day required quarantine period for infected staff, but officials acknowledge that may have to change. Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control revised its guidelines to allow COVID-positive people to return to work or school after 5 days, if they have no or improved symptoms.

“We have more concern about shorter durations of isolation and have continued to stay at that 10 days of isolation,” said Laraine Washer, medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology at U of M. “But we may need to go in the future to a shorter isolation for health care workers for return to work.”

“If our staffing constraints come to a point where we need to make these changes, we will use the same rationale to balance the risks of transmission with the risk of not having enough health care workers to provide care,” Washer added.

Michigan Medicine officials noted that while the percentage of vaccinated patients being hospitalized is rising with the omicron variant, the majority of people in the hospital for COVID are still unvaccinated. They said that vaccinations for children, and booster shots for adults, remain a critical prevention measures, along with masking and other standard precautions.

Washer said vaccination is especially important because standard COVID treatments are strictly limited and not readily available to hospitals. “These monoclonal antibodies, these antivirals are in very limited supply,” she said. “They are hard to get a hold of.”

Officials say Michigan Medicine has been forced to cancel more than 250 surgeries since December, and is prohibiting visitors at its adult hospitals for the next two weeks. They expect omicron’s sheer infectiousness will keep hospitals running at full capacity for at least the next few weeks. They say that’s dangerous for anyone who needs any kind of serious medical care, and urged people to do what they can to slow the spread.

“Now is not the time to let down your guard and get infected because you believe it's inevitable that you'll be infected anyway, or to get it over with, or because you perceive your risk of severe disease as low,” Washer said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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