Health-care workers feel the strain as Michigan remains a national COVID-19 hot spot

Though the world is more than a year into the pandemic and the United States has a robust vaccine rollout, Michigan nurse Nikki Hillis-Walters says this time around is worse than when COVID-19 first hit. 

Michigan has recorded a highest-in-the-nation 91,000 new COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks, despite improvements in numbers in recent days. That is more cases than California and Texas combined in the same period. 

Hillis-Walters, who used to work in Windsor, Ont., said she can feel the anxiety rising in herself and her colleagues as patients get sicker in a shorter period of time. 

“There’s a little bit of post-traumatic stress that comes up for sure, because there was such a feeling of helplessness the first go-around because we really didn’t know what we were dealing with and it was so many people coming in with it,” said Hillis-Walters, who works at both Beaumont Health and Henry Ford.

“So as the numbers start to go up, I can just sense with my colleagues and myself just that feeling of higher anxiety.” 

Beaumont Health, a major hospital system in Michigan, recently warned its hospitals and staff had hit critical capacity levels. COVID-19 patient numbers across the eight-hospital system jumped from 128 on Feb. 28 to more than 800.

According to Hillis-Walters, she really started to see an increase in cases after spring break at the end of March.

Doctors, medical professionals and public health officials point to a number of factors to explain how the situation has worsened in Michigan. More contagious variants, specifically the mutation first discovered in the U.K., have taken root in the state with greater prevalence than others.

The sick include non-Covid-19 cases

Though Hillis-Walters said there’s some “peace of mind” knowing she is vaccinated, she wonders how long the shot will be effective and worries about how it will hold up against the variants. 

Emergency-room technicians test patients for COVID-19 outside the emergency entrance of Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Mich., in this April 15 photo. The state has become the national hot spot for infections and hospitalizations as over half the U.S. adult population has been vaccinated, and the number of cases have diminished in other states. (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press via AP)

“I always air on the side of optimism — that’s just me,” she said. “I do think that we know a little bit more. I think we are a little more equipped to handle it.” 

But aside from the COVID-19 cases, Hillis-Walters said that for the first time in her 15 years as a nurse, she’s seeing non-COVID patients come in really sick. 

“We are seeing people in our ICU coming in with not-COVID-related illnesses, extremely sick because they are avoiding getting treatment because they are afraid of the hospital,” she said.

She urges anyone who isn’t well to seek medical attention. 

Toni Schmittling, a nurse anesthetist who works at Sinai-Grace Hospital in Detroit, said that when the city was hard hit and her hospital had to double up ventilator patients in one room, the rest of Michigan was wondering why restrictions were needed.

I think the people on the outside of our situation don’t understand the depths of what we’re going through, how long we’ve been going through it here in the hospital and that COVID’s not really ever left.– Lizzie Smagala, registered nurse in Beaumont Royal Oak’s ICU

“We’d say, ‘Are you kidding me? People are dying right and left here,”‘ Schmittling said.

Now, cases are more spread out and rural areas are getting hit hard.

At Sinai-Grace, Beaumont Royal Oak and other hospitals across the U.S., patients are younger than before, in their 30s to 50s, but don’t seem to get quite as sick.

Dr. Mark Hamed, medical director in the emergency department at McKenzie Hospital in Sandusky, Mich., and for several counties in the state’s northern region, said the area was spared from rampant COVID-19 last year. He said that may have created a false sense of security, especially among the region’s farmers and blue-collar workers who suffered economically from the pandemic and already were feeling COVID-19 fatigue.

Workers pack boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as they’re prepared to be shipped from the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant in Michigan on Dec. 13, 2020. (Morry Cash/AFP/Getty Images)

“Businesses weren’t really enforcing mask wearing,” and many people in the region shunned them anyway, he said.

Now, with variants spreading and many people still unvaccinated, his area “is being hit pretty hard,” said Hamed. “Our ER is absolutely swamped beyond belief.”

The roller-coaster of another surge

The current surge has left medical staff beleaguered. Unlike their colleagues in other states, where the virus is relatively under control, Michigan doctors and nurses are enduring another crisis.

“We start to gain some hope when the plateau hits and then here we are with another surge,” said Lizzie Smagala, a registered nurse in Beaumont Royal Oak’s medical ICU, where masked-up hospital personnel quietly and methodically tend to the sick.

“I think the people on the outside of our situation don’t understand the depths of what we’re going through, how long we’ve been going through it here in the hospital and that COVID’s not really ever left.”

At the same time, vaccine hesitancy has been an issue in Michigan.

‘We start to gain some hope when the plateau hits and then here we are with another surge,’ says Lizzie Smagala, a registered nurse at the William Beaumont Hospital’s ICU, shown April 21 in Royal Oak, Mich. (Carlos Osorio/Associated Press)

About 40 per cent of the state has received at least one vaccine dose — about the same as the national average. About 28 per cent of city residents 16 and older in Detroit have received at least one shot. The city plans to go door to door to urge people to get vaccinated. 

When vaccinations began, it felt like “there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Schmittling said. “Then, what happens to Michigan — we’re like highest in the nation. What are we doing? What’s happening in Michigan? I wish I had the answers for that.”

Officials hope the latest COVID-19 surge has started to recede. There were more than 400 COVID-19 patients Thursday morning at six Henry Ford Health System hospitals in the Detroit area, down 10 per cent from earlier in the week.

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