As Covid-19 deaths climbed in December, the first vaccines reached frontline workers.
by Trilby MacDonald
From the January, 2021 issue
In the first two weeks of the month, the novel coronavirus killed twenty people in Washtenaw County--more than the total who died over four months last summer. The positivity rate--the percentage of people tested who are found to be infected--has quadrupled since then, to 9 percent.
With so many people sick, "trying to figure out where the cases are coming from and where people are being exposed is impossible," says Susan Ringler-'Cerniglia, public information officer for the county health department. Without data, there was no way to know if the explosion in infections and deaths was the feared "bump" from Thanksgiving gatherings or simply the continued swelling of the virus's second wave.
Whatever the cause, hospitals saw more than 100 new Covid patients in those two weeks. As the Observer went to press, University Hospital had 101 Covid patients, twenty-seven of them in intensive care. But after more than doubling its ICU last spring, "we have ICU bed capacity available," emails Michigan Medicine spokesperson Mary Masson.
St. Joseph Mercy Hospital had 118 Covid patients, with eighteen in intensive care. Before the pandemic, St. Joe's ICU was staffed for forty-eight beds, but "our capacity is fluid and changes hour to hour as patients improve," says chief nursing officer Kathy Hoffman. "We are expanding and contracting as needed."
Staffing is a separate challenge. "Like most health care systems, Michigan Medicine is concerned about staffing shortages of healthcare workers," Masson emails. "We continue to carefully monitor our needs and encourage our staff to take precautions to avoid risk of exposure to COVID-19. We are considering all options for staffing, which has included reaching out to retired employees."
Hoffman says that through its corporate parent, Trinity Health, St. Joe's has tapped a regional staff pool "that allows us to shift resources. We shifted resources to Muskegon in the first surge, and now they are shifting to us."
St. Joe's has also "reached out to retired staff for support work that goes
along with responding to a surge," Hoffman says, particularly in its vaccination clinics. "We've had retired nurses reach out to us saying that [they would] love to help, and that's a great space that they can work in."
Both hospitals got their first deliveries of Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine in mid-'December and were hoping Moderna's would follow soon. The county health department is getting vaccines to practitioners outside the big systems and to EMS workers; state and federal groups are handling nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
The vaccines were developed at unprecedented speed in a highly politicized environment. A recent state survey found that only about a third of Michigan residents want to get the shots as soon as they're available, with another third planning to get them later.
Medical professionals are more enthusiastic. St. Joe's spokesman Bobby Maldonado emails that "slots to receive the first batch of the vaccine are filling quickly." And county commissioner Katie Scott, a U-M nurse, estimates that 95 percent of her ICU colleagues are on board. "Several nurses I work with have gotten the jab already," she emails. "I'm jealous!"
Hoffman stresses that until vaccination is widespread, prevention is still the best defense against the virus. She urges everyone to "get their flu shot, wear masks, wash hands, and maintain social distancing."
The health care systems face one more stress: the federal government made advance purchases to accelerate the vaccines' development and has promised the shots will be free to the public. But it hasn't provided funds to distribute and administer them.
For now, says Hoffman, St. Joe's is focused on vaccinating its staff and patients. "We trust that we will be able to figure out the finances after the fact."
[Originally published in January, 2021.]
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