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'We are really at a breaking point,' Beaumont Health doctor says of COVID-19 surge - Detroit Free Press

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More than 3,000 Michigan health care workers are off the job because they tested positive for coronavirus or were exposed to it, forcing hospitals to postpone some elective procedures as they brace for an influx of more patients in a COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Strained workers, who have been on the front lines treating patients for nearly two years, are exhausted, but their work is far from over as the surge pushes on, driving up cases and hospitalizations, including among children.

“We have an obligation to take care of the COVID patients,” said Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, Beaumont Health's chief of clinical services. But the health system also must be able to take care of people who’ve been injured in car accidents, those who’ve had heart attacks and other illnesses.

“We've really asked our physicians to postpone, if safe, any procedures that can be postponed. … We're trying to take care of the community, but we're also trying to take care of our staff. … We know our 33,000 staffers are working as hard as they’ve ever worked.

“We are really at a breaking point. … We are really at a point where it's the worst it's ever been and … we're afraid it's going to get even worse next week. So we're trying to be proactive. We're cutting back on things that we don't have to do today, but we still want to take care of our patients.”

On Thursday, Beaumont Health said more than 430 employees are out with coronavirus symptoms.

By postponing the less urgent procedures and tests, Beaumont can shift more staff to caring for COVID-19 patients along with those with cancer, traumatic injuries and other acute medical issues.

Other Michigan hospitals also are struggling.

Spectrum Health had 766 of its 31,000 employees test positive for the virus the week of Dec. 29 through Wednesday, said Chad Tuttle, Spectrum Health West Michigan's senior vice president for hospital and post-acute operations. He said many employees have volunteered to take extra shifts for stricken colleagues.

Trinity Health Michigan, which has eight hospitals and 22,000 employees, reported more than 900 medical workers were in isolation or quarantine as of Wednesday after contracting the virus or being exposed to it.

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And the Henry Ford Health System has 989 employees — about 3% of its roughly 30,000-person workforce — in COVID-19 quarantine or isolation as of Thursday morning, said Bob Riney, COO and president of health care operations for the Detroit-based hospital system.

“When you start to get into numbers where it's, 3%, 4%, 5% of your workforce, you have to make some decisions about services,” Riney told the Free Press. That means postponing surgical procedures and longer waits in emergency departments.

At Michigan Medicine, 572 employees test positive for the virus the week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1, spokesperson Mary Masson said Thursday. Since December, she said, University of Michigan Health had to postpone more than 200 surgeries because of bed capacity issues from COVID-19-related hospitalizations and staffing shortages.

"The recent surge of COVID-19 has created a dire situation across the state, straining health care resources and forcing hospitals like ours to continue to reduce surgeries and transfers," she said in an email. "These are heartbreaking decisions that we know have significant health impacts for our patients and their families."

Beaumont Health officials said Thursday the health system is caring for more than 750 COVID-19 patients in its eight hospitals, of which about 65% are not vaccinated. There has been a 40% increase in the number of COVID-19 patients being treated at the health system during the past week, they said.

Thirty-six children under age 18 are among the COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Nick Gilpin, the health system's medial director of infection prevention and epidemiology.

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On Tuesday, Henry Ford Health System officials said there were 480 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 systemwide, including one child under 17 years old who was not vaccinated. That was a 25% increase from the previous week.

“We’re dealing with just intense, widespread community transmission right now," Gilpin said. “When we look at mathematical modeling, and data that we have from sequencing, we know that the omicron variant is really taking a strong foothold in the Midwest.

“Last estimates that I saw from the CDC put omicron at around 93% of all of the COVID cases that we're seeing.”

He said the virus is "extremely explosive" and "is probably one of the most — if not the most — contagious virus that we have seen in the modern era, with shorter incubation times.

"Each person with omicron can potentially spread the virus to as many as six or 10 people and then those people can subsequently pass it on to another six or 10 people. So you can understand how transmission can spiral so quickly."

For that reason, Gilpin said, it's important for the public to help slow the spread and ease the burden.

"Our health care systems are overwhelmed," he said. "If you have ignored our pleas for help before, now is the time to take action. We need everyone’s help to get through this fourth surge. Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.”

On Wednesday, Michigan hit a new pandemic record for single-day COVID-19 cases, averaging 13,673 cases per day the last two days, according to state data.

There were 4,297 adults and children hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus statewide, and Michigan smashed another pandemic record Wednesday with 107 children hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, the state health department had confirmed 342 omicron cases in Michigan through genetic sequencing, with nearly 70% of the cases in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties as well as the city of Detroit.

But that's estimated to be only a small fraction of the total number of cases of the strain in the state.

Dr. Christine Nefcy, chief medical officer of Munson Healthcare, said Tuesday the state is only able to genetically sequence samples from about 10% of all the positive tests it receives to identify mutations in the virus and the prevalence of different variants.

Gilpin urged people to be compassionate, understanding and kind to health care workers through this surge. 

"They are also struggling. They are doing their best to follow steps to protect the health and safety of all patients,” he said.

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Coronavirus vaccines are working to prevent COVID-19 from progressing to more serious or fatal consequences in most people, Gilpin said. But more Michiganders need to get a booster dose to provide greater protection from the omicron variant.

About 8% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Beaumont's hospitals have received a booster shot, he said.

"When you look at the ICUs and the more critically ill patients, the proportion of vaccinated patients with COVID is lower," Gilpin said. "It's about 20% to 25%, which goes along with what we understand about this omicron variant — that it is more contagious, but it's causing less severe disease overall, particularly among the vaccinated."

In Michigan, 60.5% of residents age 5 and older are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine or one dose of the Johnson Johnson vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A federal team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists continues to help workers care for patients at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, one of four federal teams dispatched to Michigan to help hospitals that are struggling with stretched-thin staffing.

Other federal teams were sent to Mercy Health Muskegon, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw. The team at the Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn site was to leave Jan. 2, but will spend an additional 30 days assisting.

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With the help of the federal strike team, Beaumont, Dearborn was 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," said Tom Lanni, chief operating officer of the Dearborn hospital.

This month, the federal team will have more presence in the emergency center, which is experiencing a large volume of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.

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“For the health care system to keep functioning, we must have the community’s support," Beaumont Health CEO John Fox said in a statement, urging people to get vaccinated, boosted, wear a mask, practice social distancing, limit gatherings, and stay home when sick. 

"We all need to work together on the critical preventive steps to control this new phase of the pandemic."

Contact Christina Hall: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.

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