Michigan hospital staffing shortage nears crisis point as COVID-19 patients rise – Detroit Free Press

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Michigan’s hospitals face a critical staffing shortage that has neared a crisis point as they also struggle to manage a growing number of patients with COVID-19, the CEO of the state’s hospital association said Thursday. 

“The issue is staffing. You could have all the (hospital) beds in the world but if you don’t have an adequate number of nurses, physicians, other health care providers to staff those beds, that’s where we run into a problem,” said Brian Peters, the CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, which represents all 133 community hospitals in the state. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations have now reached about 1,400 statewide — just under one-third as high as they were during Michigan’s biggest coronavirus surge in the spring — and hospitals are approaching capacity now, he said.

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“What’s different now as opposed to at the start of the pandemic is that we have lost a number of health care employees,” Peters said. “Many have chosen early retirement. The pandemic has forced them to make that difficult decision.

“We know that many have left the hospital or health care setting altogether to seek employment in another setting for a variety of reasons. And so we know that right now, our staffing is stressed to a level that we have not seen previously.”

Adding to the crunch is that many Michiganders have delayed seeking medical care during the pandemic, and now are arriving at hospital emergency rooms in worse condition. 

“It’s also this pent-up demand,” Peters said. “The people who should have come into a health care setting … at a much earlier point to address a health care issue and instead they delayed seeking treatment … and now they have a very serious situation that demands more care.

“That’s the reality on the ground right now. We are very concerned about that getting worse.” 

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Dr. Geneva Tatem, the associate division head of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Henry Ford Health System, urged all eligible Michiganders to take coronavirus vaccines to reduce the strain on the health care system and help end the pandemic.

“If we don’t, the threat of a fourth surge is very real,” Tatem 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.”

With flu season approaching, the confluence of influenza and coronavirus could be too much, Tatem said.

“We don’t want that to happen,” she said. “We all know that the stakes are too high for that and we can end this pandemic once and for all through vaccination.”

About 5.4 million Michiganders ages 16 and older, or 66.3%, , have gotten at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard. That compares with 75.2% of adults nationally who’ve taken at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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Although Michigan has fared better in recent weeks compared to many other states stressed by the highly contagious delta coronavirus variant, it’s still seen an uptick in case rates, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive tests. 

The state added 2,364 newly confirmed cases Wednesday — the highest single-day case total since May. That represents a more than 2,000% increase from the 7-day average low of 110 cases per day reported on June 28.  

The percentage of positive coronavirus tests reported by the state also continues to creep upward, averaging 10.6% over the last seven days, compared with to a low of 1.2% in late June. 

Health care systems may not be able to continue to handle the ongoing stress from patients who could have avoided severe illness and death by getting vaccinated, said Dr. Nicole Linder, chief hospitalist at OSF St. Francis Hospital & Medical Group in Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula. 

“I was really relieved and really hopeful when there was a highly effective vaccine developed much more rapidly than I could have dreamed,” said Linder, whose hospital has 25 beds but no intensive care unit. “There was a feeling that we were getting to the finish line and we just had to hold on till the vaccine was available and then everyone would be vaccinated and this whole thing would be over. And unfortunately, we now know that’s not the case.

“We’re currently at our hospital experiencing a significant wave of COVID … and are seeing many of the same systemic problems again.”

There are no available intensive care unit beds in the region where OSF St. Francis can transfer its sickest patients, she said. People who need care for other medical conditions, such as heart and lung problems, also can’t get transferred to regional medical centers for the procedures they need. 

“It’s causing a lot of difficulty for all patients,” Linder said. “There are some new challenges in caring for this wave of patients that we didn’t really have to deal with the first go-round. The difference is that nearly all of the patients we’re caring for made the choice to not be vaccinated. And we’ve seen very few vaccinated patients in the hospital — less than I can count on one hand; none of them have been very critically ill.”

She told the story of a woman with COVID-19 named Kathy who’s been hospitalized for three weeks and was being sent home Thursday with hospice care because there’s no way to save her. Kathy had refused the vaccine. 

“It was too late for her,” Linder said. “And despite everything that could possibly be done for her, she’s going to lose her battle and lose her life. And she’s quite vivacious and gregarious and just a wonderful person, and this did not have to happen, and her family didn’t have to lose her. So I’m fatigued and I’m heartsick, 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.”

Peters said that in his 32 years at the hospital association, “I have never heard a consistent theme from across our entire membership like I have on this staffing issue.”

“It’s not just one sector of our workforce, either,” he said, saying it affects nurses along with food services workers, housekeeping staff and all the other employees who keep a hospital functioning. 

The statewide staffing pinch may also be exacerbated in the coming weeks when mandates for employees at several hospitals take effect, requiring them to get coronavirus vaccines or lose their jobs.  

Among those requiring vaccines as a condition of employment are Henry Ford, Michigan Medicine, Beaumont Health, Trinity Health, Spectrum Health, OSF HealthCare, Ascension Health, and Bronson Healthcare along with Veterans Health Administration facilities.

Dr. Adnan Munkarah, Henry Ford’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer, said during a news conference last week that the five-hospital health system hopes it won’t have to lose any workers when the deadline for its vaccine mandate takes effect Friday. 

“We hope that we’ll be able to retain our staff, and will not have to have to see any of … our team members depart. With that said, we also have been able to kind of come up with mitigation plans going forward in case we have the unfortunate situation of losing some of our staff.”

As of Thursday, 91% of the health system’s staff had been fully vaccinated and 3% of workers had gotten one dose in a two-dose series, said spokesman David Olejarz. 

“An employee who has not received at least one dose of a vaccine by Friday, Sept. 10, or does not have an approved exemption, will face suspension,” Olejarz said in an email to the Free Press. “The suspension will be in effect until Friday, Oct. 1. During these three weeks, the team member can get vaccinated. Once they receive one dose of vaccine, they may return to work.

“We are committed to working with every employee who has not yet been vaccinated but demonstrates their commitment to getting vaccinated by receiving their first dose prior to the Sept. 10 deadline. Over the next three weeks, we will work in good faith with anyone who has a change of heart and decides to get the vaccine.”

About 50 employees have sued Henry Ford in U.S. District Court in Detroit, hoping to stop the vaccine mandate. A hearing in the case is set for 3 p.m. Friday.

Contact Kristen Shamus: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus. 

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