‘You see mothers and fathers on ventilators over the holiday season’

As COVID cases skyrocket, health experts hope omicron brings fewer hospitalizations

By: - January 4, 2022 6:09 am

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As Michigan faces record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases in the wake of the rapidly spreading omicron variant, deeply beleaguered hospital officials pleaded with the public to get vaccinated and booster shots as health care workers navigate a months-long surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths that has left them feeling broken and abandoned by their communities.

“Our teams are exhausted,” said Dr. Joshua Kooistra, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Spectrum Health in West Michigan. “Over the holidays, our teams had to step up, work extra shifts, come in to care for our community. You see mothers and fathers on ventilators over the holiday season, with [COVID-19] deaths occurring every day within our facilities. To come in to work and be away from your own family to care for our community and see these situations occur which could be preventable is morally injurious to our team.”

Spectrum — which saw its highest-ever number of patients, 491 people, hospitalized with COVID-19 on Dec. 13 — is certainly not alone in combating a surge that is primarily driven by unvaccinated patients and which health care workers have described as “neverending.” 

While Michigan no longer has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the country — as it did at points in the past couple of months — the highly transmissible omicron variant has left Michigan with soaring case numbers that have prompted some K-12 schools and colleges to return to virtual learning and businesses to temporarily shutter as employees battle COVID-19. 

Michigan State University, Eastern Michigan University, Wayne State University, and Oakland University, for example, all opted for virtual learning for at least part of January. Other schools, like University of Michigan and Central Michigan University, are mandating booster shots but opted for in-person learning.

On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported there have been a total of 1,568,573 COVID-19 cases and 27,286 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic — an additional 61,235 cases and 298 deaths since Thursday. The state reported an average of 12,247 cases each day since Thursday.

Our teams are exhausted. Over the holidays, our teams had to step up, work extra shifts, come in to care for our community. You see mothers and fathers on ventilators over the holiday season, with (COVID-19) deaths occurring every day within our facilities.

– Dr. Joshua Kooistra, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Spectrum Health

Last week, the state broke a record when the DHHS reported an average of 12,929 COVID-19 cases per day. 

DHHS also reported Monday that 3,999 adults and children were hospitalized with COVID-19, an 8.5% increase over last week. Health experts said the case and hospitalization numbers remain staggeringly high as primarily unvaccinated patients continue to overwhelm already struggling hospitals. And they’re bracing for a further potential increase in hospitalizations. 

“What’s most concerning is the degree of positive results we’re seeing; yesterday we had a 38% positivity rate,” said Kooistra, referring to the percentage of people who tested positive for COVID-19 at Spectrum. 

The statewide positivity rate is at about 21%, according to DHHS.

“We’re seeing a significant uptick in those numbers,” continued Kooistra, who noted that unvaccinated patients make up 84% of Spectrum’s 372 COVID-19 inpatients, 93% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units, and 94% of those on ventilators.

Dr. Asha Shajahan | Photo courtesy Beaumont Health

Throughout the pandemic, an increase in positivity rates has translated to a subsequent rise in hospitalizations — although Kooistra said that has not yet been the case at Spectrum this time around. He and other health experts, including Dr. Asha Shajahan of Beaumont Grosse Pointe and Dr. Peter Gulick of Michigan State University, said they are hopeful the dominance of the omicron variant will mean fewer hospitalizations. 

So far, the omicron variant has been far more contagious than the delta variant — about 60% more transmissible, Gulick said — but has not attacked the lungs like delta and, globally, has resulted in fewer severe cases and hospitalizations.

“I think we’ll see fewer hospitalizations because more people are getting vaccinated and omicron isn’t causing as severe symptoms in people,” said Shajahan, medical director of community health at Beaumont Grosse Pointe and an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine.

Health experts told the Advance that while omicron is causing more breakthrough cases, those cases are typically far less serious than for those who are unvaccinated. 

“It’s so much more contagious, so we’re getting many more people infected. But the ones that have been vaccinated with the booster are getting mild disease,” said Gulick, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. “They’re getting upper respiratory symptoms, flu-like symptoms, or are asymptomatic. [Omicron] is going to hit a larger population of the unvaccinated individuals; those are the ones who have the high fatality rates.”

Gulick also emphasized that immunocompromised patients — such as people with cancer or HIV/AIDS — could also be hit hard by the new variant, even if they’re vaccinated because of spread in the community.

“They may not have the immunity to offset the variant,” Gulick said. “That’s a concern.”

Plus, while experts are optimistic that omicron will result in fewer hospitalizations, that’s not definite — and the rise of the newest variant comes at a time when influenza hospitalizations are increasing and health care workers are feeling deeply fatigued and are themselves battling COVID-19 cases, Kooistra said. 

At Spectrum, 600 employees — out of 31,000 — tested positive for COVID-19 last week. That exodus of workers strains Spectrum, which recently welcomed U.S. Department of Defense health care workers to help them with their surge of COVID-19 patients. Those federal workers are expected to remain at Spectrum through Feb. 7.

I think we’ll see fewer hospitalizations because more people are getting vaccinated and omicron isn’t causing as severe symptoms in people.

– Dr. Asha Shajahan, medical director of community health at Beaumont Grosse Pointe

“That further constrains our workforce,” Kooistra said of the employees now quarantining. 

And it’s not just the rise in virus numbers that health care workers are dealing with — Spectrum employees, and workers across the state, face an increase in patients and their families being aggressive or outright violent towards them.

“We continue to see almost daily occurrences of verbal and physical assaults against health care workers,” Kooistra said. “It is an ongoing significant problem.”

Much of that aggression is rooted in patients being angry over pandemic policies, such as masking and restricted visitor policies, health experts said.

“People have very politicized views around the pandemic that conflicts with our health care team,” Kooistra said. “People are fatigued from the pandemic, and that unfortunately results in the assaults we’re seeing.”

To support health care workers and combat case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths, health experts urged the public to get vaccinated, receive their booster shots, wear masks in public, socially distance, and frequently wash their hands.

“Masks are important, no question about it,” Gulick said. “We’re indoors more now [in the winter]. We don’t have ventilation in the areas we’re at — classrooms, restaurants, places where there are sports activities. That leads to more of an issue with his highly transmissible variant being able to be transmitted.”

Dr. Peter Gulick

Experts also urged the public to wear N95 or surgical masks to protect themselves from omicron, emphasizing that the cloth masks people were buying at the beginning of the pandemic are not sufficient now.

“I recommend masking in all public settings, social distancing and using hand sanitizer,” Shajahan said. “People have gotten loose on those types of things; stay vigilant on that.

“And you want to keep your immune system boosted,” Shajahan continued. “Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, sleep at least eight hours a night, exercise. You want to make sure you’re as healthy as possible to protect yourself against COVID-19.”

Ultimately, the best protection against COVID-19 is getting vaccinated, experts said.

“The number one thing our community can do is get vaccinated, and, if you’re eligible, get boosted,” Kooistra said.

The rate of Michiganders who have both Pfizer or Moderna shots or the one Johnson & Johnson shot currently hovers around 57%, according to DHHS, and the higher that number gets, the better it will be for everyone — including the fatigued health care workers, Kooistra said.

“This pandemic has been anything but predictable, but my hope is that omicron will peak and go away quite quickly,” he 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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