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Hospital leaders sound alarms; Detroit to keep students home

Governor Gretchen Whitmer wearing mask photo
Michigan Office of the Governor
Associated Press

Hospital leaders warned Thursday that more than 3,000 people are hospitalized with the coronavirus in Michigan, a rate that is doubling every two weeks and is expected to top the spring peak of about 4,000 by late this month.

“It’s an accelerating trend. It’s very serious,” said John Fox, president and CEO of Beaumont Health, the state’s largest system. Inpatients with COVID-19 have tripled in less than a month at Beaumont’s eight Detroit-area hospitals, he said.

Meanwhile, Detroit Public Schools, the state’s biggest school district, will suspend in-person classes next week. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Michigan is now in the “worst part” of the pandemic. She didn’t rule out new restrictions but said people do not need an executive order or judge to “make smart decisions for ourselves and our families.”

“Unless we get our act together right now, we could be hitting our daily peak of deaths in Michigan come Christmas,” she said.

Unlike six months ago, the virus is surging statewide, not just in metro Detroit — making it tougher for hospitals to manage by transferring patients or bringing on staff from elsewhere. Hospital executives echoed pleas by Whitmer and public health experts to wear a mask, socially distance, limit gatherings and wash hands — noting that as many as 40% of infected people exhibit no symptoms. Some reported continued resistance to face coverings from some visitors.

The state reported 6,940 new infections Thursday, a new record, and 45 additional deaths. The seven-day average positivity rate, 10.2%, was last that high in late April, when testing was far less robust.

Ed Ness, president and CEO of Munson Healthcare — which operates nine hospitals in northern Michigan — said COVID patients have almost quadrupled in a month.

“It doesn’t matter where you live,” he said. “Even in our rural communities, you have to be diligent. ... In smaller hospitals, they are the only hospital in a community. There isn’t a safety valve.”

The hospital leaders said it is not necessary for government to impose a broad stay-at-home order like in the spring but some targeted restrictions may be needed. They want to avoid prohibiting elective or non-emergency procedures, a ban the governor ordered early in the pandemic and later lifted. They said they have contingency plans, adequate personal protective equipment, and that their concern is less about bed capacity and more with doctors and nurses testing positive and being overworked as the virus spreads through their communities.

Asked if the state should open or reopen field hospitals, the executives cautioned that they are not a panacea and said staffing them could be problematic because the whole country is confronting surging cases.

Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said adequately staffed alternate care facilities could potentially be a “landing spot” for patients who are ready to be released but whose nursing homes are unable or unwilling to readmit them.


Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he cannot ignore a city infection rate that is climbing after reaching nearly 5% last week.

“The district relied on science and the data to reopen schools for in-person learning this summer and fall and relied on the same (criteria) to decide that it was no longer safe for our students and employees to work in an in-person school environment,” Vitti said.

Vitti faced criticism from some teachers and activists for offering a face-to-face option for his roughly 50,000 students, but he said families deserved choices. Approximately 10,000 students have been in schools or learning centers since September.


Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said the virus “is out of control.” She urged people not to travel for the holidays.

Whitmer, a Democrat, has called on the Republican-led Legislature to codify the state health department’s mask requirement into law to increase compliance. The House canceled its session Thursday after at least one lawmaker became infected. While it was not clear what sort of limits her administration might impose, Whitmer made clear it would act if the trajectory continues.

In early October, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down an emergency-powers law that underpinned the governor’s orders, but her administration reinstated similar restrictions — like gathering sizes — under a different law.

“We are facing incredibly dire circumstances. It may be necessary for us to take some quick action here,” Whitmer said.