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Strained Michigan hospital workers fear surge of Thanksgiving COVID patients

Taylor Wizner

Hospitals across northern Michigan say they have enough beds, ventilators and PPE for this surge in COVID cases — the most of the pandemic.

Their problem now is having the staff to care for these patients, especially as the virus spreads through communities and healthcare workers themselves fall ill.

Karen DenBesten, the director of infectious diseases at McLaren Northern Michigan, says that’s been an issue at the Petoskey hospital.

And unlike the spring, there’s no additional staff to fall back on.

“There is no cavalry coming,” DenBesten says. “There’s no nurses we can call in or physicians we can call in from other places because the whole country is running into this problem.”

So far, hospitals in the region have been able to get by, sometimes by transferring patients between facilities. But that won’t last if cases, and subsequent hospitalizations, continue to rise.

Limited specialized staff

A major constraint is many COVID patients require intensive treatment from staff trained in critical care.

Often patients come into the hospital without severe symptoms even though they’re not getting enough oxygen, explains Lisa Kitchens, an ICU nurse at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City.

“They’ll feel fine until they are not breathing,” she says.

Then, the sickest patients might need to be hooked up to a ventilator and dialysis machine to stay alive, requiring constant attention from providers like Kitchens.

“I could be adjusting medications every five minutes and doing things every hour on that dialysis machine,” she says.

One of the hardest parts of the job

Recently, Kitchens says the hospital loses patients every day. While she’s not new to dealing with death, she’s usually focused on helping families through the grieving process. With COVID safety protocols in place, that’s not possible.

“It's a completely different situation where you as a stranger are the only one there with them,” Kitchens says. Now the hospital is allowing one visitor if a patient has a few hours left, which is more lenient than the policy last spring, she explains. “It’s still so hard.”

She’s bracing herself for harder days still, because she thinks the hospital will only see more COVID patients in the coming weeks.

Hospitals make contingency plans

That’s also a concern for Aditya Neravetla, the Chief Medical Officer at Munson’s Grayling Hospital.

“It's going to be telling for us what happens in the next two weeks, if we do see a subsequent bump from Thanksgiving,” he says.

Hospitals have a few options to accommodate more COVID patients in the weeks ahead. They can scale back other services, like elective surgeries, to free up surgical nurses and other staff. They can also ask physicians and nurses to come out of retirement.

But Neravetla says unless infections get under control, at some point hospitals won’t be able to keep up. The state’s recent COVID restrictions should help rein in cases, but it’s unclear if those measures will be enough.

“Do we know what is the breaking point of some of these hospitals?” Neravetla asks. “You know, unfortunately, we may find out.”

Lexi Krupp reports on science and the environment. Previously, she worked for Gimlet Media where she helped the Science Vs team distinguish what's fact from what's not. Her work has appeared in Audubon, Popular Science, VICE, and elsewhere.