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University of Michigan postpones surgical procedures because of COVID-19 surge

University of Michigan hospital
Courtesy of Susan Montgomery / Shutterstock.com

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

Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor-based health system, announced Thursday it is postponing some surgical procedures because of the crush of COVID-19 patients filling its emergency rooms and hospital beds.

"Similar to many health systems across the state and metro region, Michigan Medicine has experienced record high emergency room and admission volumes for both COVID and non-COVID care this week resulting in extremely high hospital occupancy," Michigan Medicine spokeswoman Mary Masson told the Free Press in statement Thursday afternoon.

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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.

"Due to rising occupancy and forecasts for continued high demand for emergency care and admissions, Michigan Medicine has had to make the difficult decision to reschedule a small number of scheduled surgeries late this week and next week in order to maintain safe occupancy levels. 

"We are constantly monitoring the evolving situation and will make further adjustments to ensure scheduling aligns with our staffing and hospital room availability with safety of our patients and staff always remaining our highest priority."

Other hospitals around the state are facing the possibility of having to make similar decisions in the days head as coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations continue to soar in Michigan. 

"This week, it was(hospitalizations were) up 45% from the previous week," said Sarah Lyon-Callo said, the state's top epidemiologist, during a Wednesday morning press briefing. "The absolute increase over the past week has been about 1,000 patients, which is the highest absolute weekly change since the spring of 2020 surge.

"Hospitalizations are doubling every 12 to 14 days now for the last three weeks." 

Half of the people hospitalized in Michigan now with COVID-19 are under the age of 60, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive. And as of Wednesday, there were 3,406 patients hospitalized with coronavirus statewide — a 380% increase from 709 hospitalizations on Feb. 25.

The state's case rate is highest in the nation, at 469.4 cases per 100,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Beaumont Health is managing more than 700 hospitalized patients, the biggest COVID-19 patient load in the state, CEO John Fox told the Free Press on Wednesday. 

"The real question is if this curve continues, and we start to surpass what we did in our second surge and approach the first surge, that would be extremely difficult," Fox said. "And that's not a Beaumont issue, that's really across the entire health care system in Michigan."

If the volume of COVID-19 patients grows by another 30%, Fox said, it'll be too much to maintain care for coronavirus patients and all the other people who need medical help for other conditions. 

"There's no way to continue some of the other services and absorb that kind of growth," he said.

State leaders need to "start looking at every tool in the toolbox to deal with this," Fox said. 

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Michigan's leaders Wednesday to consider making policy changes, such as restricting indoor youth sports or pause indoor dining, to rein in the spread of the virus.

"I would advocate for sort of stronger mitigation strategies ... to sort of decrease the community activity and shore up mask wearing," Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team news briefing.

"I encourage communities to consider adjustments to meet their unique needs and circumstances.For example, in areas of substantial or high community transmission, CDC guidance specifically suggests refraining from youth sports that are not outside and cannot be conducted at least 6 feet apart."

Those are moves Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department, don't appear ready to make just yet.

In an appearance Tuesday night on CNN, Whitmer was asked whether the state should again suspend youth sports until the current COVID-19 surge is under control.

“We did suspend sports for a quite a while, and, of course, there was a heavy effort to come to our state Capitol to protest that,” Whitmer said. 

“We thought with these additional precautions — in terms of increased testing, increased ability to have these safety protocols, decreased numbers of people that can attend these events — that we would be able to do this safely. But we are seeing the spread continuing in teenage sports. And frankly it's something that we’re very concerned about. And that’s why we’re doing even more testing and possibly going further than we have." 

She later said: “This may be one area that we need to do more in.”

In a Twitter post Thursday, Dr. Justin Dimick, a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan, and chairman of the department of surgery, asked for help from state and federal officials in managing the state's COVID-19 outbreak:

"We are starting to cancel surgical cases again to accommodate rapidly accelerating Covid-19 admissions," he wrote. "Entire state is high-risk. Bars and restaurants are open. People are out and about. No new restrictions. We need some help."

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association, which represents all 133 community hospitals in the state, has yet to urge lawmakers to tighten COVID-19 restrictions to flatten the state's curve.

"The situation in hospitals is evolving every day and our members are concerned with the rapid rise in hospitalizations, especially among younger residents," said John Karasinski, director of communications for the association. "At this time, we have not made any recommendations to the state on changing the status of public health orders in Michigan. We are constantly evaluating hospital capacity and in close communication with the state about the needs of our members to serve their communities safely and effectively.

"Currently in place are requirements that individuals wear masks, which we know mitigate spread, and limit exposure to large numbers of people outside their household. We urge people to step up their vigilance as it relates to these proven preventive measures that are already in place, while getting vaccinated as quickly as possible. These things together — improved prevention compliance and vaccination — will stop this surge of the highly contagious and deadly variants widespread in Michigan."

If the current rate growth in COVID-19 hospitalizations continues, McLaren Health Care's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael McKenna told the Free Press Thursday that it too will have to make some hard choices.

"If we get to that point, we would have to start postponing elective cases," McKenna said. "We have to take care of the critically ill."

Free Press staff writer Dave Boucher contributed to this story. 

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

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