Michigan health leaders warn of "exponential increase" in COVID-19, sound alarm on hospital capacity

Michigan hospital executives painted a grim picture for the immediate future of the state as COVID-19 cases surged in all regions, placing increasing pressure on health care systems similar to what occurred during the early phases of the pandemic.

Over the past five weeks, hospitals from Metro Detroit to west Michigan to the upper peninsula have seen a quantifiably stark increase in average weekly growth of cases and hospitalizations with a slowdown "nowhere in sight."

"The state is now in a phase of exponential increases in both COIVD-19 cases and hospitalizations," said Gerry Anderson, executive chairman of DTE. "A 40% weekly increase implies cases double every two-to-two-and-a-half weeks."

Health executives from Beaumont, Henry Ford, Spectrum, as well as health care systems in the Upper Peninsula described positivity rates from testing tripling at some hospitals. 

Meanwhile, staffing issues have placed a growing burden in each hospital as more patients are admitted. In the past, Michigan could shift manpower around the state to help ease the burden on hospitals experiencing high admittance of people infected with the coronavirus. However, the second surge represents a different problem due to the virus hitting all regions of the state indiscriminately.

"Our situation in Michigan is once again heading to a place that is going to be very painful for our state unless we take personal responsibility - all of us across the state to slow the spread," said Anderson, who hosted a virtual press conference with leaders from Michigan's major hospitals Thursday morning.

In Beaumont, CEO John Fox said community spread was "accelerating" and warned the in-patient volumes could soon rise too. 

"In terms of our in-patient volumes, which is a lagging indicator you have to watch out for that one, that tells you how much the virus spread two weeks ago," Fox said. "Our in-patient volume has now tripled in less than 30 days - and again that is accelerating."

Fox said they have more than 400 in-patient cases with COVID-19.

At Henry Ford Health Systems, CEO Wright Lassiter III said test positivity rate rose from low single digits to 16.4%. In Spectrum hospitals, which include much of mid-Michigan, the positivity rate was 3% in September. Now it's up to 15%.

"It's a much different situation than we had a couple (of) months ago," said Tina Freese Decker, CEO of Spectrum Health.

"In the last 14 days, our Covid admissions have risen by 128% so we're seeing significant escalation across all of our Southeast Michigan hospitals and our central Michigan hospitals," said Lassiter.

Health executives said one of the main drivers of community spread of COVID-19 are social gatherings of small and mid-sized groups. People hanging out with friends or visiting family often trust one another. 

However, with the asymptomatic rate for people carrying the virus being at 40%, many don't realize they're carrying it and will spread it unknowingly.

Unlike the COVID-19 surge in late spring, when available beds ran short and ventilator supply ran dangerously low, hospitals are now seeing bigger signs of exhaustion and fatigue among health care workers along with fewer rapid testing supplies - due to necessity for the tests elsewhere around the country. 

So far, Beaumont and Henry Ford Health have both altered visitation policies for some of their hospitals. They haven't made the decision to postpone elective surgeries but may have to halt some scheduled procedures as staffing burdens become more serious.

All hospital leaders also implored viewers to take easy measures more seriously. 

"I will tell you, one of the most difficult things is getting people to use the basic tools of infection control that will protect people from the virus, particularly a mask," Fox said. "It's a difficult situation that people do not appreciate. We see it out in the community, we see it out in our lobbies where people come in, we ask them to wear a mask to do the basic protective activity, and we get resistance."

Michigan reported another near-record of daily COVID-19 cases on Wednesday - 6,008, nearly the record set a day before. Deaths have also been rising, with the state's deadliest day happening on Tuesday. On Wednesday, another 42 people died of the virus.

Two weeks ago, Michigan's average positivity rate was 4.9%. Now it's 9.4%. The seven-day average for daily new cases in Michigan has doubled as well, rising from 2,221 to 4,855.

Not unlike the bulk of states in the U.S., Michigan's spiking COVID-19 cases it arriving just in time for flu season and colder temperatures. With the higher potential for transmission amid more spread of contagions, health experts believe the country is entering its most deadly phase of the pandemic.