“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill
Here are the facts, and they are not pretty: as we enter the final month of 2021, the situation confronting our Michigan hospitals is as dire as it has been since the start of the pandemic. A prolonged fourth surge has driven COVID-19 inpatient hospitalizations above 4,600 and ICU occupancy rates to nearly 90% — both metrics hovering near our all-time record highs. Michigan hospitals are also dealing with extraordinarily high volumes of non-COVID patients — likely the result of months of pent-up demand for healthcare from Michiganders who have delayed seeking treatment for a wide range of issues. Throughout the state, elective procedures are being deferred, emergency departments are placed on diversion, patients ready for discharge are stuck in hospital beds due to transportation shortages and wait times in emergency departments can often be measured in hours. As if this wasn’t enough, we are now beginning to see the first flu cases arrive in our hospitals, at the same time that the specter of yet another new COVID-19 variant looms on the horizon. In short, we’re going through hell.
Given this reality, it is no wonder that the significant workforce challenges that predated the pandemic have only gotten worse by the month (it doesn’t help that the rates of violence, either verbal or even physical, are increasing as patients and their families become impatient with longer wait times or visitor restrictions due to infection control protocols). Many of our caregivers have headed to jobs in other fields or retired altogether. The end result of this phenomenon: nationally, hospitals and health systems remain nearly 100,000 jobs below their pre-pandemic February 2020 peak. And here in Michigan we have approximately 800 fewer staffed hospital beds today than we did one year ago — in essence, this is the inpatient capacity equivalent of shuttering one of our largest hospitals. The workers who remain are facing unprecedented stress and fatigue. Already, three Department of Defense medical teams have been called in to provide staffing support to some of our hospitals. We welcome this support, but much more is needed.
However, Michigan’s healthcare community is coming together to advocate for solutions that address healthcare workforce sustainability in both the short and long term. Together with long-term care, medical transportation providers and higher education leaders, we are advocating for funding to support healthcare workforce staffing and growing the talent pipeline.
House Bill (HB) 5523 was introduced Dec. 8 and includes $300 million for healthcare workforce recruitment and retention payments. We are extremely appreciative of this appropriation and encourage lawmakers and the administration to quickly approve the funding for the healthcare workforce before the holiday break. Our communities depend on our hospitals both for life-saving treatment and as economic engines. An investment today will help set Michigan on a path forward to addressing this crisis.
In addition, first hearings were held Nov. 30 on HBs 5556 and 5557, which would allow community colleges to offer four-year bachelor of science in nursing degrees. The MHA supports this legislation that would improve the long-term nursing talent pipeline and would increase access to high-quality nurses in some areas served by Michigan’s small and rural hospitals where a four-year school does not currently exist.
At the MHA we have a mantra: “no data without stories, and no stories without data.” It takes both to move the needle on public opinion and, hence, public policy. We have heard countless stories about the current environment from nurses, doctors, hospital and health system leaders, patients and others. The stories range from insightful, to heartbreaking, to maddening. Now here is some compelling data, which points to what all Michiganders can do to help: 76% of COVID-19 hospital inpatients are unvaccinated, 87% in the ICU are unvaccinated and 88% on ventilators are unvaccinated. The data is clear; vaccines are safe and effective at preventing severe illness. It is quite literally the most powerful tool in our toolbox. While we recently surpassed 70% of the population age 16 and older receiving at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, we have a long way to go on this front. The vaccine uptake among eligible children ages 5-11 now stands at just 16.2%, with large disparities existing between suburban communities and their rural and urban counterparts.
What we need to do to get out of this current COVID-19 surge is simple, and the message from our hospitals is clear: get vaccinated, have your children vaccinated and receive your booster dose when eligible. Adhere to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services mask advisory in large indoor gatherings. And if you do visit a healthcare facility, whether for a medical emergency or to accompany a loved one, please be patient and display some grace and empathy toward our healthcare workers. The pandemic is clearly not over, and they need your help and support now more than ever.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.