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Beset with COVID-19 misinformation, Northern Michigan hospitals face threats of violence, staff burnout

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Brett Dahlberg
Northern Michigan health officials answer questions from reporters during a virtual news conference on Tuesday.

Michigan’s fourth wave of COVID-19 cases continues to grow in the northern part of the state. In a Tuesday video call with reporters, health officials there said hospital workers are facing the twin hazards of burnout and threats of violence.

Dr. Christine Nefcy, the chief medical officer for Munson Healthcare, said staff burnout at the Northern Michigan hospital network began months ago, when it became clear that too few people were getting vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“When that didn’t happen, I think that was really hard on our staff,” Nefcy said.

Now, the triggers for burnout are getting even more pronounced: even as people are dying in her network’s hospitals, Nefcy said some are denying that they have COVID-19.

“Some of the misinformation that’s out there on social media has … been really disheartening,” said Nefcy.

Munson spokesperson Dianne Michalek said the hospital network has started an anti-violence campaign to allay the threats its staff have received from angry patients and their families.

“You will see signs in all of our facilities that there’s a zero-tolerance policy for that, and we do that to protect our own health care workers so that they can continue to care for you,” Michalek said.

Wendy Hirschenberger, the health officer for Grand Traverse County, said misinformation has been preventing some people from getting vaccinated.

Michigan’s state health department celebrated a vaccine milestone last week -- 70% of the state’s 16-and-older population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine -- but that statewide statistic masks regional disparities. In some of the counties Munson hospitals serve, fewer than 55% of people have gotten a dose.

Hirschenberger said she’s heard false information that vaccination doesn’t stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

She said while vaccines are not 100% effective, they are very good at stopping infection and transmission.

“If you don’t get infected, you can’t spread the virus,” Hirschenberger said. “Even if they get infected one out of 10 times, you’re still going to prevent spread nine out of 10 times.”

Hirschenberger said that’s why it’s important for people who aren’t vaccinated to get their shots before the holidays.

She said she worries the current surge will get even worse after Thanksgiving. Michigan already leads the nation in new COVID-19 cases per person, according to federal data.