SE Michigan hospital at ‘breaking point’ in wake of skyrocketing omicron cases

‘With each subsequent surge, I think the psychological toll gets greater and greater’

By: - January 6, 2022 4:11 pm

Department of Defense health care workers arrive at Beaumont Health in December. | Photo courtesy of Beaumont Health

Soaring omicron variant cases among Beaumont Health staff and patients have left the Southeast Michigan health care system at a “breaking point,” said hospital officials who, for the umpteenth time this pandemic, pleaded with the public Thursday to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“With each subsequent surge, I think the psychological toll gets greater and greater … many of us are at a breaking point,” Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont Health’s medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology, said at a Thursday press conference. “Right now, we really just want people to take care of themselves: get vaccinated, mask up, do all the things that I’ve talked about over and over again so that they’re not coming to the hospital.”

The full-page ad Beaumont Health is taking out in local newspapers on Sunday, Jan. 9. | Image courtesy of Beaumont Health

There are currently about 750 COVID-19 patients at Beaumont Health’s eight hospitals — a number that represents a 40% increase over last week. The COVID patients alone wouldn’t be difficult for Beaumont to handle — the system at one point was treating more than 1,300 COVID patients during the first surge, administrators noted — but this fourth wave is different, said Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, Beaumont Health’s chief of clinical services.

In the wake of an omicron variant that is highly contagious and more likely to lead to breakthrough cases, about 430 Beaumont staff are quarantining and the hospitals are far busier now than they were in the beginning of the pandemic due to more people feeling comfortable returning to health care settings, Fischgrund said. 

“With the first surge in April 2020, people were not going outside; they were not going to the hospital for anything, which isn’t good,” Fischgrund said. “Now they’re coming to the hospital.”

The overwhelming majority — about 93% — of COVID cases in the Midwest are likely now omicron, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Gilpin said that percentage likely rings true at Beaumont. Omicron spreads about two to three times as quickly as the previously dominant delta variant, though researchers note that it typically results in milder cases for individuals who are vaccinated and boosted. 

The combination of omicron, more people dropping pandemic precautions like masking and social distancing, individuals gathering indoors because of the cold weather, and a vaccination rate that hovers around 57% has left Michigan with an ongoing COVID-19 surge that is overwhelming hospitals inundated with unvaccinated patients, health care workers throughout the state have said. At Beaumont, about 65% of the 750 COVID-19 patients in the health care system are unvaccinated, Gilpin said. That percentage increases to about 80% in the intensive care units.

The Henry Ford Health System in Southeast Michigan reported similar percentages earlier this week, saying about 65% of its 300 COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. At places like Spectrum Health in West Michigan, about 84% of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated and about 93% in intensive care units are unvaccinated.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported Wednesday that a total of 1,595,919 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 27,563 have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic. There’s now a record-setting average of 12,654 COVID cases being diagnosed every day in Michigan.

With the most recent variant, if some of us are not protected, frankly none of us are protected. Those of us that have gotten vaccinated are vulnerable all over again

– Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont Health’s medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology

This surge in cases has left Michigan’s first gentleman, Marc Mallory, quarantining with COVID-19. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has tested negative. State Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Thursday she is isolating after feeling ill. So far, she has tested negative.

The mass influx of COVID patients at Beaumont has forced the hospital to begin postponing some elective procedures, including surgeries, testing and imaging, Fischgrund said.

To help the health care system deal with the massive influx of COVID patients, the U.S. Department of Defense medical team that has been working at Beaumont for the past month will extend its stay. Originally, the federal workers had been slated to remain at Beaumont until Jan. 2 but will be there for another month, officials announced Thursday.

“They’ve done phenomenal work alongside our amazing staff at Dearborn,” Beaumont, Dearborn Chief Operating Officer Tom Lanni said in a press release issued Thursday. “We were able to open additional beds in critical care, and our patients and staff have truly benefited from the expertise the DOD team has brought to our hospital. We feel fortunate to be able to work with DOD team members for an additional month.”

While the federal support has been crucial, Beaumont officials said the influx of COVID-19 patients combined with the increase in other patients with critical needs have meant they’ve not only had to curb elective procedures but are now forced to take on fewer patient transfers from other hospitals. 

“For as long as I’ve been here, which is 30 years, we’ve always had a policy that when there’s a community hospital and they need to send patients to us, we just say yes,” Fischgrund said. “That’s our job. That’s our role. So over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had to significantly cut down on that. It is horrible to say that when a small community hospital says, ‘I need your help. I have a patient here I can’t handle,’ we may not have the capacity to do that.”

Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, chief of clinical services at Beaumont | Screenshot

“As we get closer and closer to this breaking point, there may come a time where we say, ‘We can’t take any more transfers from around the state,’” Fischgrund continued. “As a physician, that is so hard to do.”

In an effort to curb the numbers of COVID-19 patients, Beaumont is turning to the community. For the first time ever, the health care system is taking out full-page ads in local newspapers this Sunday. They will read: “We’re at a breaking point.” 

“Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Get a booster,” the ads will read. 

Ultimately, Gilpin said, if people don’t get vaccinated, the state and country will have to continue to deal with a pandemic that is breaking the health care system.

“With the most recent variant, if some of us are not protected, frankly none of us are protected,” Gilpin said. “… Those of us that have gotten vaccinated are vulnerable all over again.”

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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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