Detroit Regional Chamber > Business Resources > COVID-19 > COVID-19 hospitalizations climb in Michigan as nation braces for emerging omicron variant

COVID-19 hospitalizations climb in Michigan as nation braces for emerging omicron variant

November 30, 2021
Detroit Free Press
Nov. 20, 2021
Kristen Jordan Shamus 

As Michigan hospitals confront a still worsening coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant, concern grows across the state and nation about omicron, another mutation of the virus first identified in South Africa that’s now spreading around the world.

“Sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” President Joe Biden said Monday in an address to the nation. “We’ll have to face this new threat just as we have faced those that have come before it.”

He and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer both stressed that vaccination is key in protecting lives — no matter the type of variant that’s circulating.

“These vaccines still hold up well against all the variants that have come and gone, but viruses mutate,” Whitmer said following a Monday morning meeting in Taylor on the global semiconductor shortage.

“The nature of this virus changes, right? And so I can’t tell you what six months from now is going to look like. I can tell you the more people that get vaccinated the better outlook we have.”

Scientists still don’t know many key details about the omicron variant, how contagious it is or whether it causes more severe disease. It’s also unclear how well the current vaccines will protect people from hospitalization and death from the omicron strain.

“We’re learning more about this new variant every single day,” Biden said. “And as we learn more, we’re going to share that information with the American people candidly and promptly.”

After reanalyzing the genetic sequencing data from 31,000 positive coronavirus testsamples sequenced in the state Bureau of Laboratories, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported Monday that the omicron variant has not been detected in the state.

Cases of the variant have been identified in neighboring Canada.

“It’s still early, and there is much that we need to learn about the Omicron variant,”Dr. Alexis Travis, senior deputy director of MDHHS’s Public Health Administration, said in a statement.

Omicron could strike as Michigan remains in the throes of what’s shaping up to be the state’s worst-yet pandemic surge, and as hospitals remain overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and those with other illnesses.

“Worst-case scenario, if we get a lot more cases of COVID because of omicron and we get influenza outbreaks at the same time, that could really stretch our capacity and challenge our ability to care for patients,” said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention for Henry Ford Health System.

More than 4,200 patients were hospitalized across Michigan Monday with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Among them were 48 children. About 84% of the state’s 3,114 intensive care unit beds were full, according to state data.

Nine Michigan hospitals were at 100% capacity Monday and 20 more were reporting they were 90% or more full.

Munson Healthcare is operating at “Pandemic Level Red Status,” making COVID-19 patients its top priority, while postponing nonurgent procedures and surgeries “on a case-by-case basis to shift staff and resources to where they are needed most.”

Spectrum Health hit a record number of patients in its hospitals last week and has been unable to accept patients who need to be transferred from smaller, regional hospitals for a higher level of care.

Detroit-based Henry Ford has cut back on some elective procedures, Cunningham said.

“Henry Ford is at 98% occupancy with 95% of our critical care beds filled,” he said. “So we can still care for more patients, but we’re getting close to the point where we really have to change some of the things we’re doing to handle additional patients.

“If numbers keep going up, we’ll just divert resources where we need them. … If we need to, we’ll cut more of those elective procedures. We will do whatever is needed to care for COVID in our communities, and we have a team that’s meeting pretty much every day so that we can look at this and make sure we’re planning and anticipating everything.”

The U.S. Department of Defense deployed two emergency medical teams this week to hospitals in Dearborn and Grand Rapids to help manage the coronavirus surge. They include doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists who will remain in the state for 30 days.

Cunningham said he’s concerned the omicron variant could lead the state from a bad surge into one that’s even worse.

“This could cause our current surge to just go much higher,” Cunningham said, noting that the omicron variant quickly edged out delta as the predominant strain of the virus spreading in South Africa. “It has more mutations than any other of the variants we’ve seen,” he said. “To put it in perspective, delta had nine mutations in the spike protein. This one has 30 or 32 mutations in the spike protein alone. Some of these mutations we’ve seen before — the ones that make it more contagious … spread more easily.

“There’s also a bunch of mutations (for which) we don’t know the complete significance. Some of the computer modeling of these structural changes or mutations suggests that the vaccines will still work but may not work as well.”

Still, Cunningham said: “We know vaccines are better than natural immunity at preventing reinfection. It looks like natural immunity or past infection may not protect against omicron. Again, it’s been small numbers of patients reported. There’s going to be a lot more information coming out in the next week.”

As that data emerges, Cunningham said the nation will be able to better assess just how much of a threat omicron may truly be.

“The best-case scenario would be that it’s infectious, but it’s not going to cause as much severe disease,” he said. “There’s initial reports in South Africa that people coming down with omicron tended to be less severely ill — mostly fatigue, headache, just being tired was really predominant.

“South Africa has a pretty high rate of vaccination. So the question is, is it more mild because so many people there are vaccinated or is it really an easier variant? That’s what we’re gonna find out over the next two weeks.”

In the meantime, health experts agree the best way for people to protect themselves is by getting vaccinated.

“The virus is exploding in the unvaccinated,” said Robert Bensley, a professor of public health at Western Michigan University.

“And we know that only about 54% of our population in Michigan is vaccinated. So we’ve got this huge group that is just there, waiting for COVID to infect them.”

The state’s plan, Bensley said, should be to pull out every stop to get people to take the vaccines — including boosters for all who are eligible.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Monday, suggesting all U.S. adults who are at least six months past the last dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months post-Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a boost.

“That is our No. 1 defense,” he said. “Get vaccinated and stop going to county health meetings and threatening public health officers. And stop going to school board meetings and demanding masks be removed from all schools.

“If we do all the mitigation — the mask wearing, the vaccine, the booster, social distancing — all those things are very simple concepts. That’s our best shot, right there, to do something about reducing hospitalizations.”

But if people continue to refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks despite the statewide public health advisory, and ignore other public health guidelines, Bensley said he fears people will continue to get sick — and the consequences are worrisome.

“We can only do so much,” he said.

Hospital beds and health care workers are a limited resource. There may come a point, he said, when care may have to be rationed.

“It would not be pretty. All of a sudden, who’s determining whether you’re a star-bellied sneetch so you survive or you’re plain-bellied sneetch so you don’t survive?” he said, referencing a Dr. Seuss story in which the star-bellied bird-like creatures are given preference over the plain.

“It’s a big nightmare. But our first step … is get the vaccine.”

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