The hospitalization of mostly unvaccinated COVID patients is straining hospital care, making it more likely that patients will die for medically preventable reasons. (Bridge file photo)
More than 85 percent of Michigan intensive care unit (ICU) beds and hospital inpatient beds are full, a dangerous and potentially deadly level of overcrowding as the state’s health system is strained by a fourth surge of COVID-19 cases.
At least eight hospitals are 100 percent full, according to the latest state data. west Michigan’s largest system, Spectrum Health, reached a system-record number of patients in both its hospitals and ICUs, as statewide hospitalization levels continue to climb.
Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, Spectrum’s president, stood at his computer Friday afternoon in his Grand Rapids office, next to a row of windows looking out on a cold, gray day. Normally, Spectrum would take up to 50 transfer patients each day from smaller hospitals or rural emergency rooms, he said. But now, it can’t.
“We’ll get phone calls saying we’re the 15th hospital they’ve called, and can we please help? And very often right now, the answer is no,” he said. “Because we have to take care of those people in front of us before we can take care of people that are coming from a distance. And that’s really heartbreaking, and it’s hard.”
St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital are both 100 percent full, a spokesperson confirmed Friday.
“St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston have been managing day-to-day ICU operations either at capacity or above standard capacity throughout much of November,” Dr. David Vandenberg, chief medical officer at the two hospitals, said in a statement. “While patient safety remains our No. 1 priority, the unrelenting volume of COVID-19 patients with advanced illness makes managing their care very difficult on our medical teams.”
“You could be at a hospital in the U.P. and not have someone to accept you at a bigger, more capable health system right now because of this,” said Elmouchi of Spectrum. “You can get in a car accident, you can have a heart attack, and you don’t get the care that you otherwise would have at the right time. Things can be delayed or changed as a result of this. Every health system, every hospital, every doctor across the state is trying to do their best for everybody. But it’s hard to do that when you’re stretched in capacity.”
Across the state, more than 4,000 adults and 58 children are hospitalized for confirmed or suspected COVID cases. And as of Wednesday, the most recent state data available, 2,651 of the state’s 3,114 ICU beds were occupied.
Overcrowding at these levels isn’t just inconvenient. It can kill people. Once hospitals hit 75 percent ICU capacity, more patients are likely to die for medically-preventable reasons, according to a CDC study published last week in “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly.”
Examining a year of hospital records ending in July of this year, researchers predicted that once the nation’s ICU beds were at 75 percent capacity, an estimated additional 12,000 excess deaths would occur two weeks later. And “as hospitals exceed 100 percent ICU bed capacity, 80,000 excess deaths would be expected 2 weeks later,” the authors said.
Those national models are hard to drill down to a state level: Neither the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services nor the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, an industry group, tracks deaths linked to hospital overcrowding.
“MDHHS does not have a model for excess deaths, but we work with facilities to monitor morgue capacity and have mobile resources to support additional morgue capacity if needed and requested,” spokesperson Bob Wheaton said Friday via email.
Asked if any health systems have adopted crisis standards of care (an emergency mode to help health care workers determine who gets life-saving care when resources are scarce), Wheaton said while they “aren’t aware of any facilities in full crisis standards of care…several have reported being between contingency and crisis.”
On Nov. 9, Munson Healthcare announced it was moving to “Pandemic Level Red Status” for the first time in the organization’s history. That means it will prioritize “pandemic-related care…above all other issues,” including pausing some services and assessing “non-urgent surgeries on a case-by-case basis to shift staff and resources to where they are needed most.”
Some Michigan ER patients are being “placed in hallways or conference rooms,” while hospitals divert others away “because there is no physical room or medical staff available to accept more patients,” the Michigan Health and Hospital Association said in a letter from chief medical officers across the state earlier this week.
“…Just as hospitals and the staff working inside are and have been working at capacity, our emergency medical services (EMS) are also stressed and overworked. There may be times when capacity in the system is not adequate to accommodate the usual response and speed of transport, especially for out-of-area transfers.”
As previously reported, the U.S. Department of Defense has agreed to a request from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration for federal medical teams to assist Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn.
Meanwhile, health leaders continue to plead with the public: please, get vaccinated and follow basic safety protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing.
“Every day folks say, ‘Well, but you know, people with vaccines can still get COVID,’” Elmouchi said. “They can. But our data, as recently as two days ago, shows that 91 percent of those that are hospitalized…in our 14 hospitals are… unvaccinated. And so the key to this in my mind is not, ‘we’re never going to get rid of [COVID].’ But if we can minimize it and make it much less of a severe illness, we’ll do better.”
It would be one thing if COVID cases and hospitalizations showed signs of leveling off, Elmouchi said. But the trend lines keep rising, with the state poised to break a record number of COVID inpatients.
“The COVID numbers day by day just keep creeping up,” he said. “And at this point, there’s not an end in sight to that.”