A Spectrum Health sign reads: "Face coverings are required."
Nurses, doctors and other frontline health care workers are asking the community to do their part in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as the number of seriously ill patients marches upward. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

The current pace of COVID-19 infections in West Michigan offers a troubling outlook for the coming weeks, Spectrum Health leaders said during a media briefing Thursday.

Of the roughly 4,000 COVID-19 tests conducted each day within the Spectrum Health system, about 18% are now testing positive for the disease, said Darryl Elmouchi, MD, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan.

Last week, about 15% of tests were positive for the virus.

“The situation is definitely worsening since last week, as we had all imagined,” Dr. Elmouchi said.

That trend is also developing elsewhere in the state.

“You can see that whether it’s southeast Michigan, West Michigan, Northern Michigan or the UP, we are seeing increases in COVID across the entire state,” Dr. Elmouchi said.

Unsurprisingly, the hospitalization rate is climbing in tandem.

At the current trajectory, by month’s end Spectrum Health could be treating anywhere from a low end of 600 patients to a high end of 1,200 patients, according to Dr. Elmouchi.

Also, the patients with COVID-19 who are being cared for in the intensive care units of Spectrum Health are far sicker now compared to patients admitted to the ICU this past spring.

This is because better therapies and treatment are available now, as compared to earlier this year, which means those requiring hospitalization are in far worse condition.

“By the time you make it to the ICU, you are very sick,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “Walking though those units, it is very hard to see.

“When you talk to some of our doctors and nurses, they have never taken care of this many very sick patients at the same time.”

Still, promising developments have emerged.

While Spectrum Health had been inching toward full capacity in its ICUs, health teams have worked quickly to increase ICU space by about 30%.

“Our teams have been spectacular,” Dr. Elmouchi said.

The hospitals are now positioned to expand further as the need arises.

“We have additional capacity in both staff and beds—it’s just a matter of moving things around,” he said.

Skilled team members are also being moved from other specialty areas to help treat ICU patients, which will help address any staffing shortages.

Of Spectrum Health’s 31,000 team members, last month more than 700 tested positive for COVID-19. Many team members are working extra shifts throughout the pandemic to help cover gaps in staffing.

“That certainly has helped us get through this,” Spectrum Health chief nursing executive Shawn Ulreich said.

While the health system has taken many additional precautionary steps amid the rise in COVID-19 cases—recently limiting COVID-19 testing to symptomatic people, for instance—leaders continue to share the critical importance of community members doing their part.

Those who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered from the disease are encouraged to donate antibody-rich plasma to help doctors treat other patients.

In West Michigan and nationally, families are being asked to limit Thanksgiving celebrations to their immediate household.

“We are very worried—as everyone in the country is—about Thanksgiving and how that might drive those numbers further into December,” Dr. Elmouchi said.

Frequent hand-washing, maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet and wearing a mask remain essential steps, Ulreich said.

Community members need to recognize that health teams are working hard to keep people safe, Ulreich and Dr. Elmouchi said.

“Honestly … you see it on the faces of so many people,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “People are working so hard. It’s a scary time.”

It’s concerning when some folks may question the reality of the disease, or snub warnings about how large gatherings could ramp up the spread of the virus, they said.

“If you were to talk to our doctors and nurses, they’ll say, ‘That just means I’m going to have to work that much harder,’” Dr. Elmouchi said.

“The more we can get the word out that this is real—real people taking care of real people—hopefully that’ll impact some folks and change their behaviors,” he said.

Nationally, COVID-19 deaths could close in on 300,000 by mid-December at the current rate, according to modeling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Spectrum Health teams are well-positioned to receive, store and administer COVID-19 vaccinations as they’re rolled out in the near future, the health leaders said.

The hospital system’s additional precautionary measures amid the uptick in cases includes:

  • Expanding ICU capacity and dedicating more space to care for patients battling COVID-19.
  • Further limiting visitors to keep patients and the community as safe as possible.
  • Moving services to outpatient facilities as much as possible and emphasizing curbside and virtual services.
  • Deferring some inpatient surgeries that require an overnight stay.