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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan hospital leader: Get vaxxed for COVID. We’re near capacity again.

nurses with masks
Hospital leaders worry about a slow but steady increase in volumes of COVID patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, as staffing shortages worsen. (Shutterstock)

Sept. 13: Michigan COVID nurses reach their limit: ‘I know I can’t do this forever’
Sept. 10: Required COVID vaccines put Michigan hospital worker hesitancy to the test

The head of Michigan’s hospital industry group said Thursday that COVID patients are straining state bed capacity as medical leaders once again urged more residents to get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, more than 1,400 patients were being treated at Michigan hospitals for confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, up from roughly 300 patients in early July. That’s nowhere near the state’s peak of 4,422 hospitalized COVID patients in April.

 

But hospital leaders say staffing shortages have worsened 18 months into the pandemic as nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers quit, retire, change jobs or leave the field after a series of deadly surges.

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“The issue is staffing,” Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said Thursday. “You could have all the beds in the world, but if you don't have an adequate number of nurses, physicians, and other health care providers to staff those beds, that's where we run into a problem.”

“Right now, our staffing is stressed to a level that we have not seen previously,” Peters said.

The precise size of the staffing shortage is unclear and MHA is collecting data now, he said. But he said representatives from small and large health systems “and everything in between” have expressed an “amazingly consistent theme” in recent months.

“What I can tell you is that in my 32 years at MHA, I have never heard a consistent theme from across our entire membership like I have on this staffing issue in the last several months,” he said. “It is clearly the top priority for our members.”

At a press conference Thursday, Peters and others noted the research showing that vaccines not only save lives and relieve pressure on health systems, but also can help stabilize sectors of the economy strained by the pandemic.

In a June survey of more than 600 small businesses in Michigan, 18 percent of the businesses said they worried they would not survive COVID’s toll, said Rob Fowler, CEO of the small businesses group. 

“It has been said that businesses loathe uncertainty, and one of the challenges that we have today is certainly a year and a half worth of uncertainty,” Fowler said. “The one thing that we know that can help is when we reach a certain level of community vaccination.”

Dr. Geneva Tatem, a Henry Ford Health System pulmonologist and critical care doctor, said she is “heartbroken and discouraged by patients who continue to remain unvaccinated because they thought they could outrun the disease.”

Adding to the present strain, she and others said, is a pent-up demand among other patients for medical care, as many people postponed care for serious conditions — often until it was too late, Tatem said.

“When they finally do come to get care, they are sicker, and their disease is more advanced, and — in some cases, which I've seen — too severe to cure at that point,” she said at the press conference.

“The threat of a fourth surge is very real,” she said. “The strain that we are all under, we are all very concerned, may be a tipping point for all of our health systems around the state.”

As she spoke mid-morning, Henry Ford was caring for 109 COVID patients, she said. By mid-afternoon, hospital spokesperson David Olejarz told Bridge Michigan, two more patients were admitted, bringing the total to 111.

One doctor at the press event characterized the medical community’s frustration with vaccine hesitancy in more personal terms. 

Dr. Nicole Linder, chief hospitalist at OSF St. Francis Hospital in Escanaba, in the Upper Peninsula, mentioned a patient named Kathy who “refused the vaccine adamantly.” The patient’s husband, who was vaccinated, suffered a “mild breakthrough infection” but survived. 

Kathy, however, spent three weeks in the hospital, “and during her hospital stay, she campaigned for her loved ones to get vaccinated. She was on the phone calling all of her friends and family that, like her, had refused to be vaccinated.” 

According to the doctor, at least six people were vaccinated as a result of Kathy’s calls.

“But it was too late for her,” Linder said, noting the woman is in the process of being returned home to hospice care. “Despite everything that could possibly be done for her, she's going to lose her battle and lose her life.” 

“I'm fatigued,” Linder said, “and I'm sick and I'm tired of watching people suffer needlessly and die of a disease that could have been prevented by a simple and safe and effective vaccine.” 

Michigan’s hospitals have seen waves of patients and deaths during the 18 months of the pandemic, while some businesses continue to struggle, and families must work within limited child care and uncertainty in schools.

As of Thursday in Michigan, 20,447 deaths have been connected to COVID, and more than 964,000 people have been infected with the virus. 

Last fall, hospital leaders made a similar plea to Michiganders to enact safety precautions, asking them to mask up and avoid Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday plans as hospital census numbers surged.

When the first of three COVID vaccines were approved last December, Linder said, “I think there was a feeling that we were getting to the finish line and we just had to hold on until the vaccine was available and then everyone would be vaccinated from this whole thing up over.”

A consensus of medical authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has recommended eligible people get vaccinated, even if they previously contracted COVID-19. 

On Thursday, a Beaumont Health study of COVID-19 patients across Southeast Michigan added to a growing body of research showing that vaccination — while not a guarantee against contracting COVID — dramatically reduces the chances of hospitalization and death for those who become infected. 

The study appeared in the peer-reviewed journal, Lancet Regional Health – Americas. Reviewing the records of 11,834 COVID-19 patients treated at Beaumont emergency centers, researchers found the rate of hospitalizations and emergency visits was 96 percent lower among patients who were fully vaccinated than among unvaccinated patients. 

Of the visits cited in the study, 10,880 were unvaccinated patients and just 129 of the patients were fully vaccinated. The remaining 825 were considered “partially vaccinated.”

Despite incentives, pleas, and even employment threats, fewer than 61 percent of eligible Michiganders have received a first dose of a vaccine; and just over 56 percent are fully vaccinated, according to state data.

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