‘We need the public’s help.’ Michigan Medicine urges vaccination amid hospital’s worst COVID-19 surge yet

Provider at Michigan Medicine with admitted COVID-19 patient. (Michigan Medicine)

ANN ARBOR – Michigan Medicine officials held a virtual press conference on Wednesday to share information about the hospital’s dire bed shortage, staff burnout and critical gaps in care caused by Michigan’s fourth COVID surge.

The central message throughout the briefing was clear: Get vaccinated.

“Vaccination is the only way out of this pandemic,” said Marschall Runge, CEO of Michigan Medicine, dean of U-M Medical School and executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Michigan. “People are dying at home… because our hospitals are full. It’s a dire situation across the state right now.”

Runge said the various challenges facing the health system aren’t unique to U-M, and that hospitals across the country are scrambling to address the needs of both COVID and non-COVID patients. But here in Michigan, which in mid-November led the nation in COVID numbers, hospitalizations for COVID patients just reached a record high.

As of Tuesday, a total of 110 pediatric and adult COVID patients were being treated at U-M hospital, the majority of which are unvaccinated.

President of University of Michigan Health David Miller added that none of the hospitals patients currently on ventilators have been vaccinated.

“Michigan Medicine is not able to accept transfers for patients with highly complex conditions in hospitals across the state,” said Miller. “Our Emergency Department is overflowing. This is not how we -- or anyone -- wants to provide or receive health care.”

Ripple effects across care, units

Miller said that several much-needed beds in critical care units have been closed to handle the influx of COVID patients and that 40 surgical procedures have been canceled this week alone to free up bed space.

Runge said patients who don’t receive timely surgery are dying. In addition to the risk delayed surgery presents to a patient’s health, Runge said canceled surgeries are inconvenient, disappointing and traumatic.

Although the new omicron COVID variant continues to dominate headlines as cases are detected in the U.S., officials said all cases in Michigan are the highly contagious delta variant.

Chair of the department of internal medicine at U-M Health, John Carethers, said in addition to battling COVID inside the hospital’s walls each day, doctors, nurses and staff are also battling another phenomenon: Misinformation.

“There’s lot of misinformation out there,” said Carethers. “It’s rampant and that has led to the death of many people. There’s no debate, no question: You should get vaccinated. Your kids should get vaccinated.”

Carethers said Michigan Medicine has seen many young, healthy people die from complications from COVID-19 who were unvaccinated. He also noted that 15-20% of people who have tested positive for COVID may have long haul, lasting effects from the virus, including “fuzzy brain,” heart problems, musculoskeletal issues and diabetic issues.

He added that for unvaccinated individuals, there is a 5.8-fold risk for testing positive for COVID-19 and a 14-fold risk of dying from it.

As more and more health care workers change careers due to burnout, U-M Health officials said the health system is experiencing staff shortages that vary across departments.

Currently, there are approximately 300-400 open positions across the organization, and recruiting efforts as well as efforts to retain staff are ongoing, officials said.

A lengthy fourth surge

Emergency department physician Brad Uren said this fourth surge is different from previous surges in Michigan.

“We’re seeing more COVID patients in Michigan hospitals now than during any other time during the pandemic,” said Uren.

Unlike other surges where COVID numbers would spike and come down over a period of 4-6 weeks, this surge has been building since August.

“This has been a long, sustained battle and that’s starting to show on the faces of my colleagues,” said Uren, who added that staff in the emergency department are being bombarded with misinformation around vaccines and treatments while trying to provide critical support to patients.

Carethers said this surge has kept the hospital’s floors “full and busy” and that at times the hospital is pressed for double amount of beds than during a non-surge phase.

He added that health care workers are working additional shifts to help care for these patients, creating further burnout of staff.

Miller urged anyone experiencing life-threatening symptoms like chest and abdominal pain, stroke symptoms or trouble breathing to seek out emergency care. Individuals unsure of the severity of their condition are urged to seek out alternative care by contacting their doctor on the phone or via the patient portal or visit an urgent care.

“Our teams are tired if not exhausted and we need the public’s help right now to end this pandemic,” said Miller.