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West Michigan hospitals nearing COVID-19 patient capacity, prepare for more cases

"But we're worried, frankly. We're worried the trajectory we are heading, we won't be able to keep this up," said Andrew Jameson of Mercy Health.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — In the spring, hospitals were dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases. Now, they are dealing with just as many, or more, cases than earlier in the pandemic. That's as cases continue to rise across the state, especially in Kent County.

Metro Health in Grand Rapids is currently at 80-90% capacity. 

However, there are some advantages hospitals have right now that they didn't in the spring. There is more knowledge about the novel coronavirus now, and personal protective equipment (PPE) is not as scarce as it once was. Plus, rapid testing allows hospitals to separate COVID and non-COVID patients. 

RELATED: MDHHS reacts to more than 3,300 COVID-19 cases reported Saturday 

"Our biggest worry, actually, is staffing," said Andrew Jameson, medical director of infectious disease at Mercy Health Saint Mary's, "That's as kids are out of school, because they're quarantined, as other people get sick, we've had more health care workers that have been sick from home than we've ever had before. And so, we're worried about our capacity to maintain things from a staffing standpoint, more than we are about the infrastructure."

Wednesday, Metro Health had 27 COVID-19 patients. Mercy Health Saint Mary's had 30, Mercy Health Muskegon had 38, and Holland Hospital had 22. 

Interestingly, even though the number of hospitalizations is increasing, the severity of those cases is less than what it was in the surge in spring. Metro Health, Mercy Health, and Holland Hospital all said they are using much fewer ventilators. 

"Early on, patients were staying two weeks," said Robert Schwartz, vice president of quality, IT, medical records and risk management at Holland Hospital, "Right now, with the experience our physicians have and the medications that are available, our length of stay is more like four days. So, people are coming in, they're sick, they need some support, but we're also getting them healthier and able to transfer out in a much, much shorter period of time."

RELATED: Holland Hospital implements visitor restrictions as COVID-19 cases rise

During the spring, many hospitals had surge plans, with locations outside of the hospital set up to handle COVID-19 cases only. Right now, Metro Health, Mercy Health, and Holland Hospital are not doing that, at least not yet. Their current plans allow them to house more patients in the building. 

"In the spring, we had talked about maybe setting up an ambulatory center at DeVos Place or other locations. Hopefully we won’t get to that," said Ronald Grifka, chief medical officer at Metro Health. "But if the numbers continue to rise, that is a point we'll have to discuss, and do we need to stand up an alternative location to take care of patients with COVID? But the surge plans we had made earlier in the year, those will apply directly. And we're getting ready for it. Hopefully, we have plenty of beds and capacity to take care of all the patients we will need to."

Both Jameson and Schwartz attribute the spike in cases and hospitalizations to community spread. Basically, small gatherings, often younger people, spread the disease. Those people may not be very sick, but now we are seeing the hospitalizations from who those people infect, often much more vulnerable than themselves, like parents or grandparents. 

RELATED: Rising COVID-19 numbers in Kent County indicative of statewide trends

Even though the severity is less than earlier this year, Jameson still said Mercy Health is concerned about the weeks to come. 

"One thing that we worry about is that severity of illness and mortality tend to lag behind by three to four weeks," said Jameson. "One of our big worries across the region, we're worried that we're going to keep on going up, and that we will be getting more sick people, we'll see deaths go up in the next few weeks."

All three hospitals said they have stockpiled PPE over the months and are doing well right now. They all continue to do elective surgeries elsewhere in the hospital. 

"I think over the next winter, in the next six months or so, we're probably going to see peaks and valleys, just up and down, up and down," said Griftka, "As we get a little mini surge, people then distance a bit better. We'll go down, and then it will just go on till the spring."

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