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Beaumont Health sets up triage tents outside some hospitals to manage COVID-19 surge

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Should there be a medical treatment penalty for declining to take a COVID vaccine? (Shutterstock)

Michigan's third COVID-19 surge is "like a runaway train," Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont Health’s medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology, said Thursday.

More than 800 coronavirus patients fill all eight of the hospitals in the state's largest health care system, "taxing our staff and our resources," Gilpin said, yet there's no policy in place this time to restrict in-person dining, sports or schools, where the virus is known to spread. 

It's left Beaumont in a place where it is beginning to put up triage tents outside some of its hospitals to manage the stress in its emergency rooms. Tents are up already at its Grosse Pointe hospital, Gilpin said.

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Stories from the front  

Bridge Magazine, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. We will be sharing accounts of the challenges doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel face as they work to treat patients and save lives. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact reporters Robin Erb rerb@bridgemi.com at Bridge, Kristen Jordan Shamus kshamus@freepress.com at the Free Press and Kate Wells katwells@umich.edu at Michigan Radio.

Plans are in place to stand up similar curbside triage tents outside its Dearborn and Farmington Hills hospitals as the stress on the health system bears down, said Susan Grant, Beaumont Health's chief nursing officer.

The health system also is postponing some non-urgent surgeries and procedures that would require at least an overnight stay, such as knee replacements or knee reconstruction surgeries, on a case-by-case basis, Gilpin said.

With all of its hospitals at 90% to 95% capacity, Beaumont can't take much more, he said.

"If we continue to see COVID numbers rise, we'll have to make some accommodations, open up some additional beds," he said. "The challenge here ... is where are we going to get the staff from? We can manufacture beds. We can open up beds. We can create entire wings of the hospital if we have to, but if we don't have staff for those beds, we've got nothing."

The hospital system has brought in nurses from supplemental staffing agencies, redeployed workers to more crucial areas and called retirees back in to work. Some nurses and other staff members are also picking up extra shifts, Grant said. But it is reaching a point where that won't be enough. 

"After having done this for over a year now, our nurses, our doctors, respiratory therapists, our teams, they're tired, and they're worn," Grant said. "They're not only physically tired, and they're emotionally tired. ... They want this to go away.

"They have seen a lot of death over the last year, and now they are experiencing and seeing younger people who are in our ICU (intensive-care unit) beds who are very, very sick, ... and some who are dying."

It's time, Gilpin said, for Michiganders to step up. To get vaccinated. To wear masks. To stay home when they're sick and get tested. To avoid gatherings and practice social distancing.

But it's also time, he said, to consider more restrictive measures.

"I do agree with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that it is going to be difficult to vaccinate our way out of this," he said.

With a little more than 25% of the state's adult population fully vaccinated, "that's a far cry from where we need to be to get those herd immunity numbers that will really bring this under control," Gilpin said.

It will take about five to six weeks for people who get Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines now to be fully protected. And injections of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which offers protection within two weeks of vaccination, are temporarily paused while federal regulators conduct a safety review.

"Six weeks is a long time, and especially when you're in the middle of a surging pandemic," Gilpin said. "That is, frankly too long to wait for some of us that are working in these hospitals.

"So I applaud the efforts to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible. I think that's important. But if you also look back at our prior surges, what was the difference?

"The difference in the first surge was that there were restrictions in the community to limit gathering sizes and limit indoor activities that we know are very effective ways to transmit coronavirus. We saw it in March, in April of last year. We saw it in the fall and winter months in Michigan, and both of those surges, I believe, were curbed in part because of active restrictions.

"I do think that we have to have some level of commitment to restrict some of those activities in the community now."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has urged Michiganders to voluntarily avoid indoor dining, and suggested that schools should take a two-week pause from face-to-face high school classes after spring break. She also asked youth athletic teams to pause for two weeks.

But it's not enough, Gilpin said.

"The people who were going to do the right things are already doing the right things, and the people who are not doing the right things will not do the right things," he said. "I think some of that is preaching to the choir, unfortunately. And in a time like this right now in southeast Michigan and in Michigan at large, I do think we have to be a little bit more prescriptive, frankly."

He also acknowledged that Whitmer is in a difficult place. 

"She has a very incredibly difficult job right now to manage the sort of radioactive political environment that we're all existing in right now," Gilpin said. "I'm gonna leave that those decisions to the governor. I've made it clear what I think is going to help ... this current surge that we're in and help us get to the other side."

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

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