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Virus surge means patient surge, but Up North hospitals say they’re ready

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Patti Berg, nursing administration coordinator with MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, on Thursday disinfects a wheelchair at the hospital entrance.

ALPENA — Hospital officials in northern Michigan say they are admitting more coronavirus patients than they did in the spring, but they still have the capacity to accept more.

During the first wave of the coronavirus in the spring, no more than 13 COVID-19 patients were treated at one time by MidMichigan Health, the Midland-based hospital network that includes the Alpena hospital, Chuck Sherwin, president of MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, said.

He said there are currently about 100 patients admitted between the network’s seven hospitals.

In its last patient census update on Thursday, the state health department reported nine COVID-19 patients at the Alpena hospital, two of them in the intensive care unit. None were on a ventilator as of Thursday, Sherwin said.

At McLaren Northern Michigan in Petoskey, 29 COVID-19 patients were being treated, all in the ICU, according to the state data. One was being treated at the Mackinac Straits Health System in St. Ignace. At Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, 50 COVID-19 patients were being treated, more than half in the ICU. One was in Charlevoix and 13 were in Grayling, where the hospital was 97% full. In Gaylord, two patients were being treated.

State data showed 19 COVID-19 patients admitted to Ascension St. Joseph hospital in Tawas, which was already at 100% capacity. Calls to Executive Vice President and hospital spokesman Nick Ragone were not immediately returned.

“Over the past month, McLaren Northern Michigan has seen a surge in COVID-positive patients requiring hospitalization,” Catherine Dewey, spokeswoman for McLaren Northern Michigan, said in an email to The News. “The number of positives have quadrupled in the past few weeks.”

The chart below shows the number of COVID-19 patients at Up North hospitals as of Thursday, the most recent update from the state.

Across the state-designated, 18-county health care region that includes Alpena, Presque Isle, and Montmorency counties, 123 patients were being treated for COVID-19, according to state data. On Oct. 30, that number was 39. In September, it was two.

More than 500 residents of Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties were actively infected with the coronavirus on Friday, meaning they’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 but hadn’t recovered or died. That number has increased five-fold since the start of November.

Dianne Michalek, vice president of marketing and communications with Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, said in an email to The News that the hospital currently has two dedicated units for COVID-19 patients.

“While Munson Healthcare initially designated three hospitals — Munson Medical Center, Munson Healthcare Grayling Hospital, and Munson Healthcare Cadillac Hospital — for COVID-19 patient care, other MHS hospitals across the system have begun or are preparing to care for COVID-19 patients,” Michalek said in the email. “Charlevoix Hospital admitted one COVID-19 patient last Friday, and Otsego Memorial Hospital has this week made preparations for COVID-19 patients from the Otsego County area.”

Despite the increased patient volume, Sherwin, of the Alpena hospital, said hospitals with MidMichigan Health — including Alpena’s hospital — are still operating within their capacity. He said hospital officials are also working on surge plans to accommodate more patients if necessary and to address staffing shortages.

The chart below shows the capacity at Up North hospitals as of Thursday, the most recent update from the state.

While there are enough beds to accommodate patients in Alpena, Sherwin said a significant number of employees are out because they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

“We’re working on, how do we manage our staff so we have staff here to take care of our patients?” Sherwin said. “We have enough staff today to take care of the patients. If our volume doubled, that would certainly stress us, and that’s part of the surge plans.”

Dewey said McLaren Northern Michigan has a robust surge plan that is adaptable to emerging scenarios throughout this second wave.

“What will make the difference to the success of our plan is the support of our community to practice social distancing, wear a mask, limit social gatherings, and practice good hand hygiene,” she said. “We are relying on our community to help flatten the curve.”

At Munson Medical Center, Michalek said the surge in COVID-19 patients has impacted care as officials try to ensure they have the right kind of beds for patient needs and the right employee to care for that patient.

“When COVID-19 patients require critical care, we want to make sure we have critical care nurses to care for them and a critical care bed to put them in,” she said. “Because of the influx of patients, we have had to reduce the number of elective surgeries at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City to ensure we have staffing to meet the needs of COVID-19 patients, but continue to perform those surgeries in other hospitals.”

Michalek said the current patient load is manageable, but, throughout Munson Healthcare, hospital officials are seeing an increased patient census.

McLaren Northern Michigan has taken patients from hospitals across northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

The interactive graphic below shows active infections in Northeast Michigan over time. Story continues below graphic.

Munson is taking transfers on a case-by-case basis, with a priority for critical care, trauma, stroke, and heart attack cases.

Sherwin said the Alpena hospital has not taken transfers from other hospitals because they have not had to do so. While the hospital has the ability to take transfers, hospital officials have questioned whether they want to tax the staff and patient volumes, he said, and officials want to make sure they’re “prepared for our community.”

In the meantime, Sherwin said, unlike this spring, the hospital continues to offer services to the public and will do so as safely as they can.

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.

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