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Michigan hospitals are seeing more COVID-19 patients than ever before

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Michigan now reports more COVID-19 patients in its hospitals than at any time during the pandemic, while across the state, emergency departments are backed up. Patients wait hours for beds. The crush of new, mostly unvaccinated COVID patients is affecting all kinds of care. Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio toured Mercy Health Saint Mary's in Grand Rapids to see that impact firsthand.

DUSTIN DWYER, BYLINE: Saint Mary's is one of the two main hospitals in the city. And that makes it one of the bigger hospitals in this part of the state. Under different circumstances, it's the kind of hospital that would be accepting transfer patients from smaller hospitals in smaller towns. Lately, though, it's too full for that. Dr. Matt Biersack is president of the hospital. That's an administrative job, a suit-and-tie job, but he's dressed in black scrubs because he, like everyone else around here, has been pitching in to take care of COVID patients.

MATT BIERSACK: Right, so this is - Hauenstein, too. This is the intensive care unit.

DWYER: He leads the way to the nurse's station.

BIERSACK: So this is one of our amazing ICU nurses.

RACHEL EDGETT: Nice to meet you. I'm Rachel Edgett.

DWYER: Rachel Edgett is here today on her day off. In fact, she's getting married this weekend. But now she starts showing me around the ICU.

EDGETT: As you see, when you walk down the hall, everything - you see the critical precaution signs are our COVID patients with the pumps and everything outside the rooms.

DWYER: This is the first sign that things are very different now in this ICU. Nearly all the doors to the patient rooms are closed. Outside are carts loaded up with IV bags, monitors - hospital rooms turned inside out. The patients in the rooms are alone. At one end of the hall, three people sit at a desk outside one patient's room.

EDGETT: As you see down here, they just intubated somebody. So it's a little busy outside that room.

DWYER: At the desk sit three nurses. One is a nurse anesthetist who's been redeployed here from a surgery team that is no longer doing surgeries because of the influx of COVID patients. Dr. Biersack says a lot of people around here are doing jobs they haven't done before.

The nurse anesthetist puts on a visor and a light blue gown and heads into the patient's room. Standing behind him, Dr. Biersack says this hospital is really seeing two kinds of COVID right now. One kind is not as common or severe. That's the COVID in fully vaccinated patients. Then there's the kind that is really swamping this hospital and every other hospital in the state. That's COVID in unvaccinated patients. He says the difference is stark.

BIERSACK: The COVID in unvaccinated patients is relentless. It is fast. It is dramatic. Patients go from requiring just a few liters of oxygen to requiring intubation and being placed on a ventilator in a very short time frame. And it's scary.

DWYER: Is this one of those patients?

BIERSACK: Yeah, this is a circumstance where someone pretty rapidly deteriorated, someone who was comfortable just a couple days ago when I saw her.

DWYER: Now this patient is on a ventilator. This virus still has the ability to surprise, even for those who've seen it most. Around the corner down the hallway, we run into Kelly Kelm, a respiratory therapist. She looks very tired. This influx, she says, has been the worst she's seen.

KELLY KELM: This surge has been a lot of younger people, a lot of people my age, a lot of - you know, your 40s and your 50-year-olds still have so much life left to give.

KELM: While a lot of them recover, she says too many don't. And sometimes even the nurses here aren't sure who will recover and who won't.

Dr. Biersack leads me upstairs, where two other units have been converted to care for COVID patients. In one corner of the hallway, there's a line of recliners and tables. These used to be in patient rooms.

BIERSACK: This is what happens when you clear out chairs and tables from rooms simply because we don't have room for furniture anymore because we need to fill that space with hospital beds.

DWYER: On this floor, patients are now doubled up in rooms, with only a small partition of fabric to separate the beds. Hospitals everywhere in Michigan are scrambling to add beds wherever they can staff them. There are no plans for outside field hospitals. The field hospitals are essentially being built inside, crammed into whatever space there is, treated by whatever staff hospitals can muster. Dr. Biersack says, not surprisingly, his staff is overwhelmed.

How much longer can this go on?

BIERSACK: Boy, I am worried about that, Dustin. I don't know. I don't know how much our team has left.

DWYER: But this team is the last defense. This past month, the federal government deployed three military medical teams to help out in Michigan hospitals. One of those hospitals is just up the road from Saint Mary's. But doctors and nurses here won't be getting any further assistance because no other federal teams are available. Whatever does come next with this surge, it appears that Michigan's hospitals like Mercy Health Saint Mary's are on their own. For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Grand Rapids. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.