Spectrum Health is transforming patient floors and training staff—all to boost capacity as it prepares for a surge of patients with COVID-19.

“We are planning for what could be a worst-case scenario,” said Shawn Ulreich, DSc, RN, chief nurse executive and senior vice president of clinical operations for Spectrum Health.

“I think our team has done an absolutely remarkable job preparing for this pandemic,” she said. “The planning teams have dropped absolutely everything and given 100%—150%—to this.”

Spectrum Health’s Grand Rapids hospitals, Butterworth and Blodgett, might more than triple their number of intensive care unit beds as team members work in phases to expand capacity to care for critically ill patients.

Areas eyed for ICU beds include several general medical-surgical units, which are now vacant because non-urgent surgeries have been postponed.

Rooms used for pre- and post-surgery patients also may become ICU rooms.

“These are areas where we have always treated patients, but we don’t normally have patients stay overnight,” Ulreich said.

Work also is underway to expand capacity at Spectrum Health’s regional hospitals throughout West Michigan.

In addition, Spectrum Health Renucci Hospitality House, which traditionally houses family members of patients, is partially repurposing its 37 beds for inpatient hospice and end-of-life care.

Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan has agreed to house families from the Renucci House.

Ulreich commended the staff for its “Herculean effort” in coping with a rapidly evolving crisis.

That includes a number of nurses undergoing training to care for critically ill patients in the ICU.

“The staff has been nimble and flexible,” she said. “We are bombarded with changes on a daily basis. It is a frightening time. But they are coming in to give the best care for our patients and they are doing a remarkable job.”

Spectrum Health also is piloting a virtual ICU. It would be staffed by skilled practitioners who would monitor patients’ health and have access to their records—so they could provide oversight to the bedside staff.

‘Stay home for us’

Even with all the work underway to expand hospital capacity, Spectrum Health leaders fear the surge of patients could overwhelm local health care capacity.

“We are trying to increase the number of ICU beds as quickly as we can and as safely as we can,” said Mark Van Dyke, Spectrum Health’s business assurance manager. “We are increasing the training of our staff.

“But this is going to be bad. We need people to stay home.”

Ulreich urged the community to help curb transmission of the virus—by following the state’s “stay home, stay safe” mandate, physical distancing guidelines and hand-washing recommendations.

“We are here for you,” she said. “We want you to stay home for us.”

Ulreich takes heart in the outpouring of support from the community for the health system and the health care workers. Manufacturers have created equipment to protect staff. Individuals have made face masks, donated supplies and delivered food.

“It is amazing,” she said. “We are so grateful to the community for what they have done for us.”

Even the signs in the community thanking health care workers help by boosting morale.

“It is just so gratifying to see that people in the community recognize that these individuals are on the front line of something we have never seen in our lifetime—and hopefully will never see again,” she said.

“Health care workers by nature don’t expect applause, by any means. The fact that people are reaching out is just heartwarming.”