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Stateside Podcast: As COVID cases rise, hospital beds dwindle

A nurse talks to a patient on a stretcher in the hallway of the Emergency Department at Sparrow Hospital.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A nurse talks to a patient on a stretcher in the hallway of the Emergency Department at Sparrow Hospital.

COVID cases are spiking...again. It’s not the same rapid upward surge that we saw this spring or throughout 2020. But layered on top of staffing problems, and all the usual patient needs, Michigan’s hospitalssay they’re in a dangerous position.

Maybe a metaphor would help here. Think of it this way, explained Dr. Brad Uren.

“If you think about your favorite restaurant, where you’re usually able to walk in and get a table right away, and you walk in one day expecting to be seated right away and you find that there is a large party taking up 10-15% of the spaces. That party isn’t filling the restaurant, but it’s effectively taken away your ability to get what you wanted when you needed it.”

And that's what's happening in Michigan hospitals right now, said Uren, an emergency medicine professor at the University of Michigan.

While COVID-19 patients are only around 10% of the overall patient population, they are competing for resources with people who end up in the hospital with seasonal viruses like the flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Add to that nursing shortages and hospital staff burnout, and you've got a recipe for less-than-ideal patient care.

In a recent opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press, Uren warned that health care workers are conditioned "to work under strain that can progress to dangerous levels before the cracks start to show." While he says he hasn't seen any data on how the overcrowding in hospitals is impacting patient outcomes, he can say that it is impacting the timeliness with which they can receive care.

"And that may have some downstream effects. So we need to act now to try to mitigate those time challenges before they become bigger issues for the health care system and for patients."

While nearly 70% of Michiganders ages 16 and up have had at least one one coronavirus vaccine dose. Almost 60% are fully vaccinated. But the delta variant is still going strong, and infection numbers and hospitalizations are also trending up.
Munson Healthcaredescribes itself at "level red" of its pandemic response. Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids is experiencing a “persistent record high” number of admissions.

The continued strain on healthcare systems is a big reason why Uren said we can't let up on the push to vaccinate yet. The majority of patients who are becoming seriously ill or dying of COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Uren said he does still see many patients who remain hesitant about vaccination.

"I've always tried to redirect them to a health care professional that they trust and ask them to get their questions answered, so that they can feel better about vaccination."

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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music byBlue Dot Sessions.

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April Van Buren is a producer for <i>Stateside</i>. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.