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Southwest Michigan public health says hospitals at critical point as COVID-19 cases surge

West Michigan public health leaders plead with the community as COVID-19 cases surge. (WWMT/Trisha McCauley)
West Michigan public health leaders plead with the community as COVID-19 cases surge. (WWMT/Trisha McCauley)
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Southwest Michigan public health leaders and physicians pleaded with the community on Tuesday as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged.

Medical leaders said the rising numbers of COVID cases and deaths in the region has stretched area health care resources to a critical point.

"We need your help," said Kalamazoo County Medical Director Dr. William Nettleton. "We're dedicating so much resources right now to COVID-19 patients that it's interfering with the care of everyday procedures."

In a news conference, they called the hospitalizations "preventable suffering" and urged residents to get vaccinated, both to protect themselves and to relieve the burden on the hospital system.

It's the fourth surge of the virus and far from over as hospitals near capacity yet again.

As of Dec. 1, state data showed Bronson Methodist Hospital was a 98% occupancy with 86 COVID-19 patients, 11 in the intensive care unit. Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall reported 85% occupancy with 22 COVID-19 patients, 11 in the ICU. Ascension Borgess Hospital said it was at 73% occupancy, with 52 COVID-19 patients, eight in the ICU.

"Patients are not being turned away," Ascension Borgess Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Rohs said. "We haven't hit that, but we could, that's very concerning. This is not anything we would ever have to contemplate in American health care."

With record hospitalizations, staff is stretched thin. Some are even quitting.

"What's making it especially challenging is the fact that we've lost a lot of our nursing staff to the Great Resignation," Rohs said.

He said the overall health care system had lost more than 20% of their staff during the pandemic due to burnout, retirement or vaccine mandates.

This impacts overall care for COVID-19 and non-COVID patients seeking care.

"The wait times have risen and the number of people leaving without treatment climbs, many who truly needed care," Oaklawn Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Summer Liston-Crandall said.

Health leaders said they can't continue to support the care of those who are unvaccinated.

"The overwhelming majority of folks admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 are unvaccinated," Nettleton said. "Nearly all in the intensive care unit are unvaccinated, especially those who have a tube down their throat or are intubated."

In preparedness region 5, which includes Allegan, Barry, Van Buren, Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties, 57.7% of people have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, just below the state's rate of 61.5%.

Doctors are now pleading with the community to get vaccinated, before it's too late.

"The single most effective thing you can do is get vaccinated," Rohs said. "Know this, everyone in North America is either going to get vaccinated or you're going to get COVID."

Bronson Healthcare hit a grim milestone, with 23 community members dying from COVID-19 at the hospital the week of Nov. 29. That is the highest number of deaths in a single week for the health system since the start of the pandemic.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the state will not be imposing any restrictions. Instead, the state will rely on vaccinations to get through this COVID-19 surge.

Health leaders also expressed concern about a wave of potential influenza hospitalizations during flu season.

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