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Michigan hospitals struggle to find beds – even out of state – for new COVID-19 patients

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New York State Department of Labor

Michigan hospital system leaders said Tuesday that they have been boarding patients for days in emergency rooms because hospitals throughout the state – and even some in neighboring states – have no space to care for them.

“It is happening constantly now,” said Marita Hattem-Schiffman, the Central Michigan regional president for MidMichigan Health.

Every day, she said, the hospital system has a list of people who are waiting in the emergency department for a bed in a room. And the list continues to grow.

Emergency departments are not designed for long-term care, Hattem-Schiffman said. They’re meant to stabilize patients, not help them heal.

“A patient held in the emergency department is not typically getting the care that will eventually help them get better,” she said. “There is no way that this isn’t negatively affecting patient care.”

Earlier this fall, health officials in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula said hospitals there were forced to transport patients to neighboring states in search of beds, but the problem was not widespread in Michigan.

Now, that’s changed. “The experience of finding all the nearby hospitals are full has become common for us, too,” said John Norton, a spokesperson for Spectrum Health.

Nine hospitals reported to the state this week that their beds are 100% full. More than 20 others are more than 90% full.

Some of those patients are people who have put off care for chronic conditions during the pandemic until their conditions became life-threatening, doctors said, but many of them are people desperately sick with COVID-19 in the state’s fourth pandemic surge.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation if COVID wasn’t spreading so rapidly in our communities,” Hattem-Schiffman said.

Michigan accounted for 1 in 10 new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. last week -- and people watching the data said the surge has probably not reached its peak.

“Our best guess right now is that those positivity numbers for COVID are going to continue to rise,” said Hattem-Schiffman.

But the pandemic’s course in Michigan is not prewritten, she said. Increasing the state’s vaccination rate is the key to containing the surge, but other mitigation strategies like wearing masks and keeping distance in indoor public places and adhering to quarantine guidance also help.