GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Saying it is nearing capacity as the number of COVID-19 inpatients increase, West Michigan’s largest hospital system on Wednesday put out a plea to the community to double down on mitigation practices and help flatten the curve.
During a virtual press conference, Spectrum Health officials said they were expanding intensive care capacity and dedicating more space for patients with COVID-19.
Surgeries that require overnight hospital stays are being deferred and more programs are being moved to curbside or virtual formats.
“Even with these actions, the reality is that Spectrum Health and our hospitals across the state will be hitting their capacity in a matter of days,” Spectrum Health President and CEO Tina Freese Decker said.
Spectrum also is tightening visitor restrictions in West Michigan hospitals effective Thursday. Adult inpatients and emergency room patients will not be allowed any visitors, except for those in ICU and end-of-life care.
Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, the president of Spectrum Health West, added that Spectrum will be prioritizing those with symptoms when providing COVID-19 tests.
“We will not be performing tests on people solely with exposure” to the virus, Elmouchi said, explaining the reason for the change is to ensure those with symptoms get test results back quickly.
He said Spectrum was in “active discussions” with public health officials about the possibility of opening a field hospital, but noted it’s better to utilize regular capacity first. He also pointed out that staffing a field hospital would be difficult, especially amid cases surges elsewhere in the country.
“We are facing some of the most daunting and demanding challenges since this pandemic began,” Freese Decker said. “COVID-19 is surging across our state and we are heading in the wrong direction.”
“We must change this trajectory of community spread. This is why we need our community’s help and support. We need to flatten this curve like we did last spring,” she added.
Michigan on Wednesday announced more than 6,000 newly confirmed coronavirus cases statewide. West Michigan is now seeing the highest rate of new cases per million people per day of any region in the state and one of the highest testing positivity rates.
On Wednesday morning, Spectrum Health’s website showed its hospitals were treating a record 290 COVID-19 inpatients. Officials expect the numbers to keep rising.
“COVID-19 is affecting all groups, young and old, cutting across all populations,” Freese Decker said.
She said the number of inpatients has tripled in the last 20 days, is 3.5 times higher than the spring and is eight times higher than September.
Spectrum’s seven-day positive test rate is now 14.6%. Two weeks ago, it was 10%. Two months ago, it was below 3%, the threshold rate public health officials say shows community spread is controlled.
“We really don’t want it higher than 4% or 5%, because once we start to see that, we start to see it start to increase exponentially,” Freese Decker explained.
The number of deaths within the health system has also been up in the last three weeks. Among those hospitalized with the virus in West Michigan, 1 in 10 are dying, a rate Freese Decker called “very concerning.”
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“This is very serious. We have been in contact with every single hospital in our region and everyone is feeling it the same way,” Elmouchi said. “And we are getting to the point where if we don’t have the public helping us, you’re going to see a lot more patients in the hospital, a lot more patients die and it will not be a pleasant sight.”
He urged everyone to follow the basic health practices that officials have been touting for months: washing their hands frequently, practicing social distancing and wearing a mask in public.
He also said, in accordance with U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, that people should not have extended family gatherings at Thanksgiving and instead should stay with only their immediate family. He said officials are concerned that larger gatherings could cause further spread of the virus.
“We’re not talking about months and months of us not leaving our home,” Elmouchi said. “The goal would be that everyone does their part for a matter weeks, this starts coming down and then hopefully we can all do a bit more again.”
He added that with a better personal protection equipment reserve than the spring, Spectrum was prepared to continue with much of its outpatient care and wanted to “keep as much care going” as possible “so we don’t cause harm down the road.”
After Pfizer saying earlier this week that its COVID-19 vaccine could be 90% effective, Elmouchi said Spectrum is “hopeful” that it could help quell the virus.
But Elmouchi cautioned that “it’s not there yet, it’s not a cure today, it’s not going to stop what we’re seeing.”
The vaccine has not yet received federal approval and even once it does, it will be a while before it’s widely available to everyone. Still, Spectrum is preparing for the day it is rolled out broadly, buying more freezers and working with health departments to prepare for distribution.