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Michigan’s fourth pandemic surge burns slow, but still burns out hospital workers

Army Spc. Daniel Fields takes a patient’s blood pressure reading in the Javits New York Medical Station in New York City last March.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Barry Riley
U.S. Department of Defense
Army Spc. Daniel Fields takes a patient’s blood pressure reading in the Javits New York Medical Station in New York City last March.

Hospitals across Michigan said this week that they have been overwhelmed by the state’s fourth COVID-19 surge – but to people watching the data, this surge looks a lot different than previous waves of the pandemic.

“It’s a weird spike. It’s not very spikey; it’s much more gradual,” said Marisa Eisenberg, who teaches epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

“Usually, you have kind of an exponential rise and then an exponential fall,” she said. “This one’s been kind of linear. It’s been slowly climbing.”

As a result, Eisenberg said, public health workers have had a tough time convincing people the surge is dangerous – or even that it’s happening at all. She compared the surge situation to the fable of the frog in a slowly heating pot.

“The frog in boiling water kind of effect, right? Where things are kind going up and up, but it’s not so intense and instant” that people can notice a change, she said.

Statewide data show Michigan’s daily new COVID-19 cases are barely half of what they were in previous surges. Eisenberg and several hospital officials said at first glance, that might seem like good news.

But hospitals say the unending increase in cases means they can’t discharge patients fast enough to free up bed space for new patients. COVID-19 takes longer to treat than many other conditions that land people in hospitals.

Munson Healthcare in Northwest Michigan andSpectrum Health in Grand Rapids have both said they’re seeing more patients now than at any point in the pandemic. Several clinics outside Detroithave reported to the state health department that they have less than a week’s worth of some types of protective gear on hand for their staff, and Beaumont Health epidemiologist Dr. Nick Gilpinsaid the region is once again becoming a pandemic hotspot.

And the surge comes just as many health care workers are leaving their jobs.

Ruthanne Sudderth, a spokesperson for the Michigan Health and Hospitals Association, said as cases keep climbing, doctors and nurses have hit a wall.

“It’s putting hospitals and other health care settings under a constant state of stress that really doesn’t have an end in sight right now, and that’s leading to quicker burnout and greater emotional and physical stress on our health care workers,” Sudderth said.

At the McLaren network of hospitals in the Tri-Cities area, chief medical officer Dr. Norman Chapin says they have beds they can’t use because they don’t have staff to cover them.

“Staff that work in the understaffed areas such as our emergency department are really doing a superhuman effort, but the truth is that we’re seeing levels of burnout that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

McLaren and other health systems in Michigan have been trying to keep staff on board by increasing pay and benefits, Chapin said, but it hasn’t been enough to keep pace with patients.

The crush of COVID-19 patients has been compounded by an increase in people with chronic conditions coming in for care that was postponed during previous surges, said Chapin.

Plus, now it’s flu season. Chapin said people are being hospitalized with respiratory illnesses that aside from COVID-19.

Eisenberg, the U of M epidemiologist, said this surge probably hasn’t crested.

“Now, we’re going into the holidays, so the real concern is that it might merge with the holiday wave and potentially make that worse,” she said.

Public health officials say the best way to slow the spread of the virus is to get vaccinated, and they say it’s especially important now for unvaccinated people to be taking other precautions like wearing masks and avoiding crowded spaces.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.