COVID-19 patients are overwhelming Michigan's health care system, but there are no plans to open field hospitals

Dec 21, 2021 at 4:29 pm
click to enlarge The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers converted the then-named TCF Center in downtown Detroit into a 1,000-bed field hospital in April 2020. - Courtesy of TCF Center
Courtesy of TCF Center
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers converted the then-named TCF Center in downtown Detroit into a 1,000-bed field hospital in April 2020.

As health officials braced for the first wave of COVID-19 cases in early 2020, the state opened a 1,000-bed field hospital at the former TCF Center in downtown Detroit.

The care center was used for less than a month, and only 39 patients used it because of a steep decline in COVID-19 cases.

A field hospital also opened in Novi, and only 16 COVID-19 patients were treated.

Now, with highly transmissible variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 on the rise, hospitals are busier than ever, and some are even closing their emergency rooms because they don’t have the space or resources to handle the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Despite the severe strain on hospitals, state health officials tell Metro Times that there are no plans to reopen another field hospital in metro Detroit.

“The alternate care sites were established so that Michiganders with COVID-19 could receive high-quality care despite hospital beds filling up in Southeast Michigan,” Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), says. “The TCF Center and Suburban Collection Showplace were not extended once they expired at the end of 2020. Additionally, staffing resources are not currently available to support an expansion of alternate care sites like TCF or SCS.”

About 20.8% of the hospital beds in Michigan are occupied by COVID-19 patients, and "this number has been increasing for 22 weeks," MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said at a news conference on Tuesday.

According to state data, 25 hospitals are at 90% capacity or higher. As of Monday, two hospitals — McLaren Flint and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital — were at capacity.

Some hospitals are also running out of intensive care unit (ICU) beds. Statewide, 84,5% of the ICU beds are occupied.

Without field hospitals, state health officials are “working with our local, state and federal partners to support our health care systems, to address this surge, and to save lives with the resources we have available,” Hertel said.

The state is helping coordinate federally distributed monoclonal antibody therapies and providing mechanical ventilators, while requesting additional federal resources.

“If the strain on our hospitals increases, we are unsure of any additional federal clinical teams that are available at this time,” Hertel said.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden said help is on the way, announcing that Michigan is among six states that will get emergency response teams. It’s not yet clear how those teams will be used.

Biden said he's deploying 1,000 troops nationwide to "help staff local hospitals and expand capacity." In addition, he directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deploy teams to help increase the number of hospital beds that will be set up in parking lots and buildings adjacent to hospitals. Hundreds of ambulances and medics will help transport COVID-19 patients to makeshift hospitals, Biden said.

Biden's administration also is sending ventilators, masks, gloves, and gowns to hospitals.

The federal help is in response to omicron, a highly contagious variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 that has been confirmed in metro Detroit and other parts of the state. Health officials believe it is now the dominant strain in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and health officials are urging residents to get vaccinated, saying it’s the most effective way to combat the spread of the virus.

“Hospitals across our state — and frankly many states — are stretched thin once again, and that’s putting it lightly,” Whitmer said. "We’re seeing familiar scenes play out across Michigan: Long lines at testing sites, rising case numbers, and nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists pushed to the brink.”

Unvaccinated people account for about 88% of hospitalizations and 85% of new deaths, according to state data.

“Progress depends on all of us doing our part,” Whitmer said. “The longer the virus lasts, the more it will spread and the more it will mutate.”

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