KALAMAZOO, MI — Kalamazoo’s two main hospitals have exceeded 90% capacity as of Thursday, Nov. 19.
Medical directors from Bronson Methodist, Ascension Borgess and Oaklawn hospitals met in a virtual roundtable Thursday to talk about capacity, staffing and regional trends in Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties.
Dr. Summer Liston-Crandall, medical director of Oaklawn Medical Group, said it has taken some time for community members in Calhoun County to recognize COVID-19 has spread into midsize and smaller cities, like Battle Creek and Marshall.
“It took some pretty hard-hitting, headline-type news to really make our colleagues and our neighbors start to hear this; it is present here,” she said. “We were hearing for a long time, ‘Oh it’s elsewhere.’ I think we’d all like to think that, but indeed it is here.”
The positivity rate of those tested for coronavirus at Oaklawn’s Marshall hospital has been higher than 20% for a week or more, Liston-Crandall said.
Data from the MI Safe Start Map on Nov. 15 shows Kalamazoo County has a positivity rate of 12.7%, and 544 new daily cases per million people. Calhoun County’s positivity rate is 14.6% and 585 new daily cases per million.
“We are really hearing the concern and I think, finally, our audience is too,” Liston-Crandall said.
Dr. Thomas Rohs, chief medical officer for Ascension Borgess, pointed out that the virus is not isolated. Kalamazoo’s hospitals serve as regional healthcare facilities, Rohs pointed out, meaning that they are accepting patients from neighboring counties as well as from Kalamazoo County.
Both Rohs and Dr. Martinson Arnan, chief clinical officer for Bronson Healthcare, said their hospitals’ internal testing show positivity rates much higher than Kalamazoo County’s rate, because of that mix of patients from a larger region.
“It is very much out there in our less densely populated communities and everybody has to pay attention,” Rohs said. “Even if you’re in a small town and you think you’re a little bit immune. Nowhere is immune anymore. This is no longer a disease of urbanicity or being in the city, like it was in the springtime.”
Being larger hospitals allows both Bronson and Borgess to be flexible with capacity — both in physical space and bed count, the medical directors said.
As of Thursday, Bronson Methodist Hospital in downtown Kalamazoo was operating at 93% capacity with 59 coronavirus patients. Ascension Borgess was operating at 91% capacity with 37 coronavirus patients, according to state data.
Oaklawn Hospital in Marshall does not have the same flexibility, Liston-Crandall said. The hospital has started to delay procedures like colonoscopies so that space and staff could be used for coronavirus patients instead, she said.
On Thursday, Oaklawn was operating at 58% capacity and caring for 11 coronavirus patients, according to state data.
“We had to be a little nimble to meet the demands,” Liston-Crandall said. “We’ve had to reach out to our community partners like Bronson and Borgess for transferring patients that we haven’t had room for.”
Staffing remains a strain on Bronson and Borgess as well. Both hospitals are asking nurses with previous bedside experience to leave current positions in quality care or administrative work to return to roles in bedside care.
“We’re seeing extraordinary sacrifice from so many people as a way of leveraging the skills that are within the system,” Arnan said. “Doing your part to stay safe and to keep your neighbors safe, to keep your vulnerable family members safe, is your way of saying, I valued that sacrifice.”
While hospital systems are in flux to accommodate the growing number of coronavirus patients, the three medical directors had a clear message to the public — do not forgo care out of fear of contracting the coronavirus.
At Borgess, Rohs said, the emergency room numbers already started to decrease after the latest public health order was announced Sunday.
Hospitals want to avoid shutting down the healthcare system entirely and creating a backlog of patients who need regular treatment, like what happened in the spring.
The main difference between the spring and fall surges is that hospitals now better understand the virus and are better prepared to separate coronavirus patients from other wings of the hospital, the medical directors said. They fear that people suffering serious symptoms from the virus or other medical conditions will delay medical attention.
“If you’re having some alarming symptoms, don’t try to ride it at home,” Rohs said. “If you come to the hospital, we will keep you safe. We have the capacity to take care of you. It’s different than it was in the spring; it’s better than it was in the spring.”
The hospital directors were optimistic about the news that both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine products exceeded 90% efficacy in their trials. All three directors expressed their confidence in the coming vaccines.
“I think that people have to understand that it’s miraculous that the vaccine was developed so fast,” Arnan said. “It’s also because a lot of bureaucratic things that sometimes slow things down were taken away, but the science was never diluted.”
Pfizer’s plant in Portage will be one of the company’s main distribution centers, and Kalamazoo County’s health department has been tapped as a regional hub for storage and distribution.
Bronson, Borgess and Oaklawn have all ordered ultracold freezers so they can store vaccine doses that requires storage in temperatures of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
The state health department’s plan for distribution has healthcare professionals as part of the first group of people eligible for the vaccine before enough is produced for mass distribution.
“I frankly would be the first one in line to have one if I can be,” Rohs said. “And I’ll be throwing my family in line ahead of me if I can.”
Even with a light at the end of the tunnel, Arnan warned the community not to be disillusioned by good news. The overarching message from all three medical directors was that coronavirus will continue to spread at high rates unless individuals change their behaviors.
“Being our brothers or sisters’ keeper means that if I protect myself, I might be able to protect someone else who might be more vulnerable than me, who may not survive it,” Arnan said. “Let’s work hard to do what we can not just for ourselves, but for the people around us.”
More on MLive: