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Experts project aggressive social distancing could drastically reduce Michigan COVID-19 cases by May

Social distancing could lower peak number of patients at U of M Hospital by 65%

Coronavirus health care workers wearing hazmat suits
Coronavirus health care workers wearing hazmat suits (AP)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Clinicians with Michigan Medicine said their forecasting models suggest aggressive social distancing could drastically reduce the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Michigan by early May.

The reduction could lower the peak number of patients at the University of Michigan Hospital by as much as 65%, experts said.

UPDATE -- March 31, 2020: Michigan coronavirus cases up to 7,615; Death toll rises to 259

“This data confirms that everyone in Michigan can help us flatten the curve, and it is crucial," said Vikas Parekh, M.D., associate chief clinical officer for Michigan Medicine’s adult hospitals and professor of internal medicine. "This is not to be taken lightly.”

Lowering peak number of patients

Parekh said through sustained and prolonged social distancing, Michigan residents can greatly reduce the portion of the population that becomes infected and significantly lower estimates for the number of patients who would require hospitalization.

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“In a scenario where the virus spreads throughout the local population infecting the majority of the population, our model shows tremendous differences between less and more aggressive social distancing,” Parekh said. “Our models show that in this worst-case scenario, with less social distancing, our peak census of patients in U-M hospitals could be as high as 5,860 patients on May 4. With aggressive social distancing, the model shows about 2,000 patients on that same date.”

Modeling social distancing total census
Modeling social distancing total census (Michigan Medicine)

Doctors prepare for surge of cases

Michigan Medicine is licensed for 1,000 beds, but knowing the patient surge will exceed its current capacity, teams are developing other options that could accommodate a surge of patients, including redeployment of staff, converting other space in the hospitals for patient care, or converting nearby university dormitories.

Officials said they expect to reach capacity in the next two weeks, so they are looking to turn the indoor track facility on State Street into a field hospital that would act as a step-down unit for patients who aren’t quite ready to go home.

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They are also looking at other ways to increase capacity, including the possible use of dorms and hotels that are willing to take patients who don’t need to be hospitalized but can’t go home, perhaps because they live with someone at high risk.

Importance of social distancing

Michigan Medicine leaders are asking the community to heed the warnings from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and public health officials.

“We have teams working around the clock to plan for this potential surge in patients," said Marschall Runge, M.D., Ph.D., CEO of Michigan Medicine, dean of the U-M Medical School and executive vice president for Medical Affairs at the University of Michigan. “The projections are alarming. But we know, based on experiences in Italy and China and other countries, that we can significantly flatten that curve with the help of the public.

“I want to reassure the public that we are doing all we can to prepare to care for COVID-19 positive patients as well as other patients who urgently require the highly-specialized, safe and reliable advanced medical care that Michigan Medicine delivers. We have reached out for donations of medical equipment and received thousands of gloves, masks and more so we can better meet this challenge.

“We prepare constantly for emergencies like this and have some of the world’s top experts preparing for the problem. But we need your help, and these projections prove it.”

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Aggressive social distancing means staying away from anyone else outside your immediate family and limiting going out to a store or pharmacy for only urgent needs.

Schools and businesses are closed and large gatherings are canceled.

Walking outside is fine as long as people maintain a six-foot distance, experts said.

Parekh and others are closely monitoring how often the number of patients double each day. In Italy, after each social distancing intervention was made, the doubling time went from three days to more than eight days after several weeks of sustained social distancing interventions.

Impact of reduction in contacts
Impact of reduction in contacts (Michigan Medicine)

“The impact is striking," Parekh said. “It is critical that our community maintains a high level of social distancing to help our healthcare community continue to care for COVID-19 patients and all of our patients at the highest, best standards.”

Parekh said that if the doubling time slows, there are fewer infected individuals at any given time, which will result in less overall transmission.

How Michigan Medicine is preparing

Michigan Medicine has made important changes to open up capacity in its hospitals, in anticipation of the patient surge, postponing all elective surgeries and procedures. They are consolidating our clinic services, providing many more video visits and plan to redeploy staff to assist in COVID-19 care.

Click here to learn more about the coronavirus and COVID-19 response at Michigan Medicine.

Michigan Medicine also has opened a 32-room Regional Infectious Containment Unit that allows grouping of patients with COVID-19, which adds to the many isolation rooms around the hospital. Engineers have been working to convert even more rooms to accommodate patients in an optimally safe environment.

“We are facing a challenging future," Runge said. “Michigan Medicine’s healthcare providers are doing all they can to prepare and plan for what’s to come. We need the help of all Michiganders. Stay at home and away from others, practice good hand hygiene and you’ll be doing all you can to help our caregivers.”


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