GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The current surge of COVID-19 cases is impacting patients who don’t even have the virus, hospital leaders said Friday.

Spectrum Health West Michigan President Dr. Darryl Elmouchi said over the last 45 days, Spectrum Health’s hospitals have had to deny 700 transfer requests from outlying hospitals for patients who needed a higher level of care because there is no room. Elmouchi said it’s a problem that’s happening at hospitals across the state.

“So you could be in the UP, you could be somewhere up north (or) anywhere else, get in a car accident, have a heart attack. And even if it’s not COVID related, because the strain COVID is putting on the health care system you could potentially not get the care you otherwise would,” he explained.

Elmouchi said Spectrum Health alone has had to “safely” defer 1,100 surgeries since this surge began. Mercy Health has also postponed some surgeries and University of Michigan Health-West delayed over 70 procedures over the last two weeks, according to respective hospital leaders.

“That causes suffering, that causes psychological and that’s not what any of us want,” Elmouchi said.

In less than four weeks, the number of COVID-19 patients in Spectrum Health hospitals has roughly doubled, hospital data shows. Spectrum Health hit a record earlier this week with 457 people hospitalized with COVID-19, down slightly to 455 people on Friday. Elmouchi said the intensive care unit is beyond capacity.

Approximately 98% of Mercy Health’s hospital beds are occupied and the ICU is at full capacity, according to Dr. Matt Biersack, President and Chief Medical Officer for Mercy Health Saint Mary’s.

For the past three months, U of M Health-West has been operating with about 90% of hospital beds filled, according to President and CEO Dr. Peter Hahn. The hospital hit its COVID-19 hospitalization record at the end of the last week.

“I think that this is absolutely a time of reckoning for health care, especially on the hospital side,” Hahn said of the prolonged delta surge combined with staffing shortages and worker exhaustion.

Elmouchi said at the beginning of this week, 87% of those staying in Spectrum Hospitals with COVID-19 were not vaccinated, with unvaccinated patients accounting for 92% of the COVID-19 patients in the ICU and 94% of the COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

It’s a similar story for the other two health systems. Mercy Health had the lowest rate, with 75% of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated patients occupying hospital beds.

“When you look at the caregivers — all of us and all the people that work with us — people are really struggling. This is needless death, day after day,” Elmouchi said.

Michigan leads the nation for most new COVID-19 cases per capita over the past two weeks.

On Friday, the state reported 18,442 new COVID-19 cases from Wednesday and Thursday. It also reported 277 new deaths related to COVID-19 over two days; 169 of those were from a standard records check.

The state has seen a total of 24,367 COVID-19 related deaths.

Elmouchi said Spectrum Health saw more patients die from COVID-19 last month when compared the November 2020 surge, and he expects this month to be worse.

“Based on the numbers of people in our ICU and what we’re seeing in the community, we anticipate that December of 2021 will probably set a sad record for the number of deaths we’ve seen through this entire pandemic,” Elmouchi said.

“The impact to all those families is unspeakable. And our team members, seeing this much death, no one’s prepared for that… so it is really a challenge,” he added.

Adding to the challenges is an “amazing increase” in hostility and violence, with reports of hospital staff being hit, scratched and yelled at on a daily basis, according to Elmouchi. 

Biersack said national data suggests up to 100,000 workers have left the health care industry.

“I think the worst impact that we’ve seen has just been on our health care workers. Our staff are tired… they’re desperate for a reprieve from the pandemic,” he said.

While two anti-viral pills on the horizon show promise in helping curb COVID-19 hospitalizations, leaders of all three hospitals agreed the best tool is already available.

“They only way we’re going to get through this is through vaccination and immunization. We’re not going to treat our way through this,” Hahn said.

He says U of M Health-West hasn’t seen anybody who’s gotten a COVID-19 booster hospitalized.

Some help is on the way for the hospitals Biersack expects 10 additional ventilators to arrive at Mercy Health Friday and a team of 20 doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists sent by the Department of Defense were getting oriented at Spectrum Health Friday. Elmouchi said the new team will start caring for patients as soon as this weekend.

“I feel lucky and blessed and so thankful they’re here,” Elmouchi said.