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Michigan hospitals plead with residents to mask up, ditch holiday plans

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

Michigan hospital leaders Thursday pleaded with residents to mask up and cancel any routine Thanksgiving plans. With the current surge of COVID-19  cases through the state, hospitals will reach the same overwhelming pressure they did last spring by the end of this month, they said.


Staff is limited, and they are getting tired.

Testing supplies are shrinking, with no end in sight.

Planning the holidays as normal will only make hospitals’ ability to handle the virus worse.

Those were the urgent messages hospital leaders shared on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

“The healthcare system can capsize if you don't keep it under control. We're ready to dedicate you know as much as we need to … it's not unlimited,” said John Fox, CEO of Beaumont Health, the state’s largest hospital system.

Fox joined six other hospital leaders representing both metropolitan and rural hospitals.

“Our state is now in a phase of exponential increases in both COVID-19 cases, COVID-19 hospitalizations, and I think it's fair to say that a slowdown is nowhere in sight,” said Gerry Anderson, Executive Chairman of DTE Energy and Co-Chair of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council, a group of business and health care leaders appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Anderson organized the call, according to the public relations firm that notified journalists.

Last spring, COVID slammed into Detroit and southeast Michigan first,  overwhelming health systems with a sudden crush of severely ill and dying COVID-19 patients. Hospitals scrambled for staff, as many health care workers fell ill, and for personal protective equipment, ventilators and other equipment. Desperate, they turned to the public for DIY masks and other supplies and ran out of space for storing bodies.

As the virus surges at record levels this fall, cases are spreading more broadly across the state, though medical care is better as doctors and researchers have learned so much more about the virus, and how best to treat it.

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But staffing is more limited now, as hospitals have less ability to pull doctors, nurses and technicians from other, lesser hit areas of the state and country, since COVID is surging across much of the nation. 

“Having spaces to go is one thing,” Spectrum Health CEO and President Tina Freese Decker said on Thursday’s media call. “The other concern we have is just our team. They've been dealing with this for a very long time, so they are tired.”

The increase in community spread means they’re at even greater risk of becoming sick themselves, she and others said.

On Wednesday, Michigan reported 6,008 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 42 deaths, as the numbers of Michiganders hospitalized with COVID-19 passed 3,000. In contrast, 484 Michiganders were hospitalized with COVID on Oct. 1.

Hospitals that had been spared the brunt of COVID-19 now face capacity issues, leaving little “safety valve” or ability to transfer patients among hospitals, said Munson Healthcare President and CEO Ed Ness.

Throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 61 percent of the intensive care patients have COVID-19, said Gar Atchison, Chief Executive Officer and Market President at UP Health System – Marquette.

“The capacity issues are in the U.P. They're in northern Michigan, and they're in all of our communities,” said Munson’s Ness.

Making matters worse are worsening outlooks in the state’s nursing homes and other senior facilities. In some cases, hospitals are ready to discharge patients “back to a skilled nursing facility” but nursing homes “are either unwilling or unable to accept” them, said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

Alternative care facilities, such as field hospitals, could relieve a “bottleneck” in care, but only if there are health care workers left to staff them, Peters said.

As Bridge Michigan reported, several hospitals boosted the minimum wage for lower-level workers in recent weeks as a way to keep and lure new critical workers in dietary, janitorial and other entry-level areas. Beaumont announced pay increases for 3,700 nonunion staff Thursday morning. It also said it will pay “Thanks for Thanksgiving” bonuses. Full-time employees will receive $1,000 and part-time contingent employees will receive payments based on their hours. 

Senior leadership will be excluded from these payments. 

Hospital leaders said they remain frustrated that so many people still do not wear masks. Sometimes, people resist mask-wearing even in hospitals, they said.

The hospital leaders also noted that many residents falsely assume COVID spreads only in large gatherings or among strangers at, say, a grocery store.

That’s just wrong, they said.

“One of the challenges I think we face in our northern Michigan rural communities (is that) people know each other, they're comfortable with each other — their friends, their family,” said Munson’s Ness. “There is this perception that ‘If I know somebody, and I'm just getting together with those friends, they couldn't possibly have’” the virus. 

“Just because you know somebody, just because they're friends, doesn't mean that you shouldn't be cautious,” he said.

The hospital leaders called on residents to take personal responsibility for keeping their loved ones and communities safe to curb COVID spread.

“I think none of us want to go through the shutdown and the brute force of what happened in the spring,” said Beaumont’s Fox.

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