MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The current COVID-19 surge has forced Mercy Health Muskegon to extend emergency department services into a tent.

The tent was set up a few weeks ago as COVID-19 cases surged. Hospitals officials were hoping they wouldn’t need it. On Thursday, they were forced to act.

“If you had asked me five years ago, I never would have thought something like this would occur domestically for the delivery of health care,” said Dr. Justin Grill, the chief medical officer for Mercy Health Muskegon.

“When we started the day yesterday at 6 a.m., we were at about 99% capacity related to our impatient beds. And as the day went on yesterday, more and more patients came in through the ER, we became significantly space constrained,” he added.

By mid-day Friday, capacity was at about 97%.

“The more severe cases, the patients being admitted, by far, tend to be unvaccinated individuals,” said Grill.

Inside the tent, staffed by Mercy Health nurses and other personnel, will be the same services patients would receive if they walked into the emergency department waiting room just a few steps away.

“The tent is heated. We have hospital staff there to check people in. Once we’re able to see them, we bring them inside. They won’t go back out to the tent,” Grill said.

Some of the regular ER waiting area space is now being used for patient care. The setup allows the hospital to adjust space based on the ebb and flow of emergency room capacity.

“We installed temporary barriers in the waiting room in which to care for patients. They’re removable so, for instance, during the night hours, as of 11 p.m., we shut down the tent and bring everyone inside,” said Grill.

Just how temporary is the temporary waiting room?

Grill is optimistic there may be light at the end of the tunnel to this latest surge, which is fueled by the omicron variant.

“What we have seen, for instance, in New York City, London and some of the cities where omicron hit earlier than this, is it is very intense when it is there, but that it last maybe six, eight weeks at most. And then it kind of goes away,” said Grill. “That’s what we’re certainly hoping to see here, that by maybe February, things will let up and we won’t be in the position we are in today.”

Hospital administrators also urge you to consider alternatives before heading to the ER.

“Please, before you go into the emergency department, think about the symptoms you are having. If they are not symptoms that you think are not for an emergent medical condition, consider calling your primary care physician or go to urgent care first,” Grill said. “That really does help us with the capacity in our emergency department.”

If you’re experiencing trouble breathing, chest pains or symptoms of a stroke, go to the emergency room.