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U.S. military medical teams to aid Michigan as COVID swamps hospitals

After a summer lull in COVID cases, the number of hospitalized patients with COVID is reaching an all-time high. (Shutterstock)

Nov. 27: 85% of Michigan inpatient and ICU beds are full, some patients turned away

The Biden administration will send military help to two Michigan hospital systems, after the state asked for assistance amid surging COVID cases, overwhelmed emergency rooms and chronic staff shortages.

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration said Wednesday the U.S. Department of Defense will deploy two medical teams — each with 22 registered nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists — to support staff at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

The teams are scheduled to arrive next week and begin treating patients immediately, supporting local staff for 30 days, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, Whitmer said she was "grateful" for the federal help, which will provide "much-needed relief to the health care personnel who have remained on the frontlines of this pandemic."


In August, the Biden administration offered to supplement medical staff as increasing COVID cases “renewed strains on medical personnel availability.”  Already, the DOD has deployed emergency staff — usually in teams of less than two dozen people — to Minnesota, Colorado and several other states

As of Wednesday, Michigan was leading the nation in the rate of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations and was tied with South Dakota for the highest rate of positive coronavirus tests at 16.8 percent. South Dakota’s rate, however, is falling; Michigan’s is rising, up from 14.7 percent last week. Higher positivity rates suggest more uncontrolled community spread of the virus. Michigan’s goal has been to keep the rate at 3 percent or below. 

Hospital data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nearly 22 percent of all hospital beds in Michigan are occupied by patients being treated for confirmed or suspected COVID-19. That’s approaching the pandemic peak of 25 percent in April. In addition, 23 hospitals statewide are now reporting critical staff shortages, up from six reporting staff problems on Nov. 1, according to the CDC.

Military help would help supplement “respiratory therapists, nurses and physicians,” said John Karasinski, spokesperson for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, a hospital industry group. He said the association asked the state Sunday evening to make the formal request.

The Michigan Health & Hospital Association, a hospital industry group, asked the state Sunday evening to make the formal request, said spokesperson John Karasinski.

Federal help necessarily focuses on hospitals in most dire need, Dr. Jeffrey Desmond, chief medical officer at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor told Bridge before the announcement.

Though busy, Michigan Medicine “is nowhere near cancelling all our non-urgent procedures” — the first step hospitals should take to address capacity challenges before calling for federal help, according to a Department of Defense advisory.

The request for federal help follows weeks of increasingly frantic pleas to Michigan residents from public health and health care leaders trying to ring alarm bells against growing pandemic fatigue and longing to return to a normal holiday season.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday that the number of city residents in hospital beds has nearly doubled in the last three weeks. 

"If it doubles again in the next three weeks, we're going to see the most serious problem we’ve had since the spring of 2020" when the pandemic first overwhelmed Michigan, Duggan said at a public briefing in which he urged more people to seek vaccinations and booster shots.

The state health department said Wednesday it has also received approval to transfer some civilians to open beds at the John D. Dingell Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Detroit. That initial agreement will last 30 days but could be extended.

Brian Peters heads the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. (Courtesy photo)

In September, Peters, the MHA head, said hospitals were filling up again with COVID patients along with patients with other medical needs, including many who had put off needed medical care during the pandemic. Making matters worse, were increasing staffing shortages as nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers quit, retire, changed jobs or left the medical field following a series of deadly surges.

“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,” Peters said then. 

At the time, about 1,400 patients in MIchigan’s hospitals had confirmed or suspected COVID cases.  (This number may include a subset of patients treated for other emergencies — an accident trauma, for example — but test positive for COVID as well.)

A week later — as 1,535 hospitalized patients had suspected or confirmed COVID — Beaumont Hospital in Southeast Michigan asked patients to go elsewhere for treatment whenever possible, such as an urgent care clinic or primary care office, given long waits in its emergency department. 

Last Friday morning, as 3,661 patients had suspected or confirmed COVID, chief medical officers during their weekly phone meeting decided to issue a formal plea to Michiganders to get vaccines and take other safety precautions against COVID during the holidays.

The letter was distributed Monday. 

By then, the number of patients with suspected or confirmed COVID climbed to 3,963.

Facilities are running at “contingency levels of care,” the medical officers said, meaning more routine delays in patient care and staffing shortages. Non-urgent medical procedures are being cancelled in some health systems, and patients are facing waits for care and even, at times, for EMS responders.

Whitmer lifted statewide COVID-19 mandates this summer and has resisted reinstating them during the latest surge. Instead, Whitmer has continued to urge vaccinations and recommend local school mask mandates. 

Ahead of Thanksgiving and other holiday gatherings, the state Department of Health and Human Services released a face mask advisory on Friday and on Wednesday issued additional guidance for visitors to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

“Statewide mandates don't make a lot of sense in this moment because it is a specific population of unvaccinated folks that we need to encourage to get vaccinated,” Whitmer said Wednesday morning in an interview with WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids.

"The more people in hospital beds with COVID, the greater price we all pay, because God forbid one of us who is vaccinated needs to go to the hospital because of some sort of accident, or a heart attack shoveling snow, for instance. We need to know those beds are there. We need to give our hospital workers some relief,” she said.

The request

To be eligible for federal medical help, according to the federal advisory, hospitals had to first take 13 steps to relieve pressure; in addition to pausing non-urgent procedures, they must expand telemedicine options and seek the help of retired medical professionals, among other steps.

The federal relief coming to Michigan is similar to assistance recently provided to Minnesota, where 44 medical personnel are deployed in two hospitals. The help will reportedly allow a Minneapolis hospital to add six "step-down beds" to supplement the intensive care unit and 10 additional beds for patients recovering from emergency care.

Hospitals in two regions of Michigan — northern Michigan and south-central Michigan — are now seeing the most COVID patients since the pandemic began and southwest Michigan is almost at peak.

In the nine-county south-central Michigan region stretching from the Ohio border to Shiawassee County, there are now 377 COVID patients in hospitals, exceeding an earlier peak of 372 patients.

Southwest Michigan’s hospitals are treating 269 patients, nearly equal to the 273 who were treated in November, 2020.

And at their peak, northern Michigan hospitals in an 18-county region last November were caring for 143 patients with suspected or confirmed COVID. As of Monday, there were 167 of those patients.

On Tuesday, Munson Healthcare leaders and public health officials in northern Michigan held a press conference, in part, to call attention to the fact that the region is now posting some of the highest positivity rates since the beginning of the pandemic.

“For our county we've had six COVID deaths in the last seven days alone,”  Grand Traverse County health officer Wendy Hirschenberger said. “We're essentially replicating the worst surge we saw in Michigan about a year ago.”

Overworked health care staff need a break, but a holiday surge could only make things worse, said David Jahn, CEO of War Memorial Hospital in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.(Courtesy photo)

On Wednesday in Sault Ste. Marie, COVID patients occupied 14 of the 35 or so beds that War Memorial Hospital could staff, president and CEO David Jahn said.

The Upper Peninsula hospital, which has 49 licensed beds but too few staff to support them now, needs about two dozen staff to supplement workers who are “burnt out and overworked.”

“It's fine to pay nurses double time for picking up extra shifts, but they can't work every day of the week, either. They need their time away to get balance in their life,” he said.

Jahn said War Memorial and other hospitals also need additional staff to support efforts in delivering monoclonal antibody treatment. The  lab-produced proteins previously used to treat people with COVID are now also being used to stop infections before they start in high-risk individuals. That, in turn, will relieve pressure on hospitals by curbing the worst effects of COVID, Jahn said.

As part of the request, Michigan received additional 800 rounds of RegenCoV, a form of the treatment, but it was not clear where those therapies were destined.

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