‘Just keeping our heads above water’: Unvaccinated patients fill struggling Michigan hospitals

After omicron reported in Michigan, health officials plead with public to get vaccinated

By: - December 10, 2021 3:18 pm

Lynne Terry/States Newsroom

The day after the first omicron variant case was detected in Michigan, medical experts sounded yet another alarm about the state’s large unvaccinated population and soaring COVID-19 cases that are leaving hospitals struggling with crammed emergency departments and staff exoduses.

“We are now two weeks past Thanksgiving, and Michigan continues to trend in a deeply concerning direction,” Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), said during a Friday press conference. “Heading into the Christmas holiday and the New Year…the omicron variant now has been detected in Michigan. How easily that variant spreads remains unknown, although all indicators are that it is more transmissible than the delta variant.”

Michigan’s first omicron case was detected in a Kent County resident, state health officials announced Thursday. The case has resulted in a “mild illness,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive, said Friday.

The omicron variant has been confirmed in 25 states and is believed to spread twice as quickly as the delta variant, according to scientists in South Africa, where omicron was first detected. South African scientists have reported that omicron could result in less severe COVID-19 cases compared to delta.

Omicron’s seemingly rapid spread is worrying health experts as Michigan once again reports the highest number of COVID-19 cases and the second highest COVID-19 case rate in the country this week. Michigan’s case numbers — 569 per 100,000 people — are the highest the state has seen throughout the pandemic, Bagdasarian noted.

For individuals who have not yet been vaccinated, I want to be absolutely clear: You are risking serious illness, hospitalization and even death.

– Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths have been increasing in Michigan for weeks. Over the past week, 87 Michiganders have died every day from COVID-19, Bagdasarian said.

“The situation in our state is critical right now,” Bagdasarian said Friday. “Cases are surging, hospitals are full and we have a new variant.”

These skyrocketing COVID numbers that are leaving hospitals and health care workers overwhelmed are “predominantly a surge of the unvaccinated,” Bagdasarian said. All the health experts who spoke Friday emphasized that the only way to end this surge and emerge from the pandemic is through vaccinations — including booster shots for those who are already fully vaccinated. They also said individuals, including people who are fully vaccinated, should continue to wear face masks indoors and get tested for COVID before any large gatherings.

Michigan has a vaccination rate lower than the national average. About 56% of the state’s residents ages 5 and older — the population eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine— are fully vaccinated, according to DHHS. 

Nationwide, a little more than 60% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve had at least two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or the one-shot Johnson&Johnson vaccine. That leaves about 5.2 million Michiganders fully vaccinated and a little more than four million Michiganders unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

State health officials and doctors discuss Michigan’s soaring COVID-19 cases during a Dec. 10, 2021 press conference. | Screen shot

Before the delta variant emerged, health officials in the state and country set goals of vaccinating at least 70% of the population. That, however, has changed as more contagious variants spread around the globe. Dr. Matthew Sims, the director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, told the Advance in November that 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated. 

“For individuals who have not yet been vaccinated, I want to be absolutely clear: You are risking serious illness, hospitalization and even death,” Hertel said Friday.

At the end of November, unvaccinated patients made up 88% of Michigan’s COVID-19 patients on ventilators, 87% of patients in intensive care units, and 76% of people hospitalized for COVID-19. About 2% of fully vaccinated Michiganders have experienced breakthrough COVID-19 cases, Hertel said. Health experts have told the Advance that these numbers are leaving hospitals and burnt out health care workers at a “breaking point.”

“It’s the burnout and frustration and exits of the typical health care worker which is just devastating,” Dr. Paolo Marciano, chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, said Friday. 

The situation in our state is critical right now. Cases are surging, hospitals are full and we have a new variant.

– Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive

As doctors across the state have noted, Marciano said health care workers are facing deep fatigue from working in a pandemic that has now stretched on for 20 months and are leaving hospital jobs because of burnout. He noted that Beaumont has recently received a temporary increase in staff from the federal government to help with the fourth COVID-19 surge, which he called a “tremendous lifeline.”

The federal government recently approved requests from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for staffing assistance at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw; Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn; and Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

Still, despite this assistance, Beaumont, like hospitals across the state, is struggling as COVID-19 patients soar. 

“Where we are today is really just keeping our heads above water,” Marciano said. 

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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