The ever-improving outlook on COVID-19 is a welcome change to Spectrum Health team members who have been on the front lines for upwards of two years. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Spectrum Health continues to see the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 move in the right direction.

But the pandemic is not over.

Darryl Elmouchi, MD, MBA, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, discusses what the next phase of COVID-19 might look like—and what this could mean for the community as the virus loosens its grip on West Michigan.

Q: How are things looking at Spectrum Health?

After nearly 90 days, Spectrum Health is officially moving out of red status and back into yellow status.

This means operations—while still interrupted in terms of staffing shortages and the number of patients with COVID-19—are overall improving.

“Things are definitely getting better,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “We are seeing slow but steady improvement in our inpatient COVID-19 census, which is great news for everybody.”

Fewer than 300 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 at Spectrum Health.

Q: Are we finally on our way out of this pandemic?

There is no CDC guide to a hospital or health system’s status. These are internal measures that point toward things getting better, but by no means is it a return to normal.

“The pandemic, sadly, is not over,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “But we are very hopeful that we’re steadily shifting into a different phase of the pandemic where things are more manageable.”

Q: What might change as we shift into a new phase?

At this point not very much will change. Visitor restrictions will remain in place at Spectrum Health, but this could change in the weeks and months ahead.

Patients, team members and visitors will need to continue wearing a mask at any Spectrum Health facility.

“If you could see under the mask, you might see a few more smiles from our team members because they likely feel slightly less burdened,” Dr. Elmouchi said.

Q: How are pediatric admissions at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital?

Over the past three weeks, Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital has seen a peak in the number of children admitted with COVID-19.

Children’s hospital team members are seeing more kids who are quite ill and even on ventilators.

A fair number of children being hospitalized are unvaccinated and are getting quite sick, Dr. Elmouchi said.

“This is mostly due to the transmissibility of the omicron variant,” he said. “Even though this variant is less severe in most people, it’s not less severe in everyone, including children.”

Q: Might this be the last surge of the virus?

Things will not return to normal just yet. But it will get much more normal with time.

“We’re all going to need to learn how to live with this virus and not necessarily cower away from it, as we did in the beginning when we knew nothing,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “So many people have gotten sick over the last six weeks. And we hope there’s much more community immunity moving forward.”

Dr. Elmouchi believes we will see a little more of a return to normalcy as the disease starts to spread more like the flu.

“We think things will get better as the year progresses,” he said.

Q: Can you explain “endemic,” versus “pandemic”?

With a pandemic, there is a huge amount of illness all at the same time. In the case of COVID-19, it was across the globe. An endemic is where disease settles in and exists in the background.

“Think of chicken pox,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “It never really goes away. But we don’t have these huge spikes happening all over at the same time.”

With cold and flu, surges come each winter, but they’re nothing as severe as COVID-19.

“The best way for all of us to think about this is we’re going to learn to live with an endemic of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s never going to go away. It’s just going to get better and better.”