Michigan’s medical and business leaders convened Thursday to sound the alarm about the possibility of an incoming fourth wave of COVID-19, stressing that the state is at a “tipping point” in dealing with the virus while urging unvaccinated Michiganders to get the vaccine.
“We truly need to get the message across that our best treatment for COVID is to never get it in the first place,” said Dr. Nicole Linder, chief hospitalist at OSF St. Francis Hospital & Medical Group.
Michigan Health & Hospital Association (MHA) CEO Brian Peters said that there are currently more than 1,400 in-patient hospitalizations throughout the state for COVID-19.
As that number rises, hospitals are also beginning to see high volumes of patients who delayed care during the pandemic, who are now “presenting in our hospital emergency departments with higher acuity, meaning they’re sicker,” Peters said. They in turn require higher levels of care and longer hospital stays, further stressing the hospital systems.
“We recently surpassed 20,000 Michiganders who have lost their lives to COVID-19. So this remains a deadly serious situation for all of us to rally around and continue to do all we can to curb the spread of this deadly pandemic,” Peters said.
As of Wednesday, the state reports a total of 964,317 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 20,447 deaths. A total of 4.8 million Michigan residents 12 years and older have been fully vaccinated; about 5.2 million have been partially vaccinated.
The virtual press event Thursday also featured leaders of the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM). Linder and Peters shared the perspective of hospitals being overwhelmed with patients, along with Dr. Geneva Tatem, associate division head of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Henry Ford Health System.
SBAM CEO Rob Fowler and Bill Kimble, president of C2AE and chair of the SBAM board of directors, emphasized that staffing shortages and other strains caused by the prolonged pandemic are severely impacting entire business industries.
“We have lost thousands of restaurants and hospitality businesses,” Fowler said. “I think we don’t yet know the real damage that this pandemic has wrought on our economy, on our small businesses. Some small businesses are temporarily closed, but may remain permanently closed. And so I think we don’t yet know the real economic impact of this thing.”
The groups stopped short of calling for statewide workplace mandates, however. Although employers are legally permitted to do so, and some have, the groups said decisions should be done on an individual basis.
“We support the independent decision making of our members, understanding that every organization, every community is different in terms of how they approach the situation,” Peters said. “We want to get as many people vaccinated as possible, but a mandate may not be the right strategy at this time in every organization.”
Peters added that if member hospitals and health systems do choose to roll out mandates, MHA will be fully supportive of the decision. Some MHA members have already mandated vaccines, others are considering a mandate in the coming weeks and months, and some are “very concerned” about what a mandate could mean for the already-critical staffing levels.
Similarly, SBAM members are largely not mandating vaccinations for employees, but encouraging them to be inoculated.
“We have not required it, and we are not asking whether they’re vaccinated, but we continue to stress” the importance and efficacy of vaccines, Kimble said. “… Our message is, for small businesses, get vaccinated so that we can operate efficiently and effectively keep productivity where it needs to be.”
Tatem said that currently at Henry Ford Hospital alone, 77% of the 22 patients hospitalized there for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
“[Those] percentages scale across a broad population, and are really reflective of what we’ve been seeing across all of our hospitals and across the state,” Tatem said.
Linder shared a personal story of an unvaccinated woman named Kathy who has been in her care for the last three weeks. She had refused the vaccine adamantly, but fell seriously ill and is currently in the process of being shifted to hospice care.
“The first day that I met her the day after she was admitted, immediately she told me, ‘I really regret now that I didn’t get that vaccine,’” Linder said. During her hospital stay, she began campaigning on the phone to her friends and family members who, like her, had also refused a vaccine.
“She was able to get at least six, so far, of her family members and friends to get vaccinated, but it was too late for her. And despite everything that could possibly be done for her, she’s going to lose her battle and lose her life,” Linder said.
The GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature has been adamantly against vaccine mandates of any sort, has resisted mask mandates and has even passed bills preemptively preventing the use of so-called “vaccine passports.”
When asked by the Advance if legislative leaders need to urge more Michiganders to get vaccinated, Fowler said that is critical for the economy. He did not specifically address a question on Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) repeatedly making anti-vaccine comments and spreading misinformation about “natural immunity.”
“I would say to all of the legislative leaders: Lead. This is a time for leaders to lead, and the idea of vaccinations is really important for us to get back to normal, back to our economy running strong again,” Fowler said.
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