Amid concerns of Michigan's 4th Covid wave, fatigue and burnout threaten a beleaguered health care system

What would the fourth surge of COVID-19 look like in Michigan?

The next wave is beginning to come into focus as the number of positive cases rose to levels not seen since the surprise April surge when more than 4,000 people were hospitalized with the virus. 

So far, 1,300 people are hospitalized - a figure that is dwarfed by previous infection peaks in the past year and a half. But according to Brian Peters, the CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, fewer health care workers are around to help those patients.

"Our staffing is stressed to a level that we have not seen previously," Peters said Thursday. "One of the ways to prevent that is to get the vaccine. There's just no question."

Nurses and doctors are burned out after struggling through a trauma-filled 2020 and 2021. Whereas the suffering was new and uncertain last year, it has taken on a more frustrating vantage due to the wide accessibility and scientific consensus that vaccines that could keep people from dying are widely available.

Yet only 59% of the state's population over the age of 12 is vaccinated. That figure is trailing the national average of 62%.

Physicians said there is a new dimension of stress, sadness, and fatigue on the front lines, as people die after refusing vaccines that work.

"I would not want to say at this point we're entering a fourth surge in Michigan or in this region of Michigan, but I'm very concerned that we are," said Barbara Ducatman, the chief medical executive at Beaumont Health. "And our hospitals are very full. We have a lot of ill patients so vaccination is the best way to keep yourself and your children safe."

I'm "heartbroken and discouraged by patients who continue to remain unvaccinated because they thought they could outrun the disease," said Dr. Geneva Tatum, the associate division head of pulmonary and critical care at Henry Ford Health System. 

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Staffing burnout may be threatening Southeast Michigan hospitals, but it's the rural health care sector that could be hit hardest. Infection rates are highest in northern Michigan, where six counties top the state's highest two-week case rates. Dr. Nicole Linder, the chief hospitalist at St Francis Hospital & Medical Group in Escanaba said family members distrusting medicine is partly why won't get the vaccine. 

Linder told the story of an unvaccinated patient whom she treated for the past three weeks. While hospitalized, the woman made calls to persuade at least six family members and friends to get vaccinated.

"But it was too late for her," Linder said. "Despite everything that could possibly be done for her, she's going to lose her battle and lose her life. She's vivacious and gregarious and just a wonderful person. This did not have to happen. Her family didn't have to lose her. I am fatigued and I am heartsick and I am tired of watching people suffer needlessly and die of a disease that could have been prevented by a simple and safe and effective vaccine."

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While industry officials conveyed concern about the immediate situation, there is some worry it might only get worse once students all return to school and people who put off care during the pandemic return to hospitals needing surgery and assistance. 

Whether unvaccinated people are ready or not, the option of remaining unprotected against the virus may fast disappearing, following a new executive order from President Joe Biden.

A new vaccine mandate Thursday will require businesses with 100 employees or more to require the vaccine. The federal government will also require the vaccine, as well as most contractors that work with the government. 

Business leaders joined in the vaccination push. Vaccines, they said, can keep schools and child care centers open, protect employees on the job, give comfort to customers and prevent government-ordered capacity restrictions.

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said her office was reviewing the president's plan. She previously said she did not plan to issue "broad" masking or vaccine requirements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report