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Michigan experiences its 4th COVID surge — the nation's highest case rate

NOEL KING, HOST:

Michigan is in the middle of a fourth COVID surge. Once again, hospitals there are overwhelmed. Unlike previous surges, though, public health experts say this one was preventable. Here's Michigan Radio's Kate Wells.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Remember in the spring of 2020 when everybody talked about flattening the curve, keeping the hospital system from getting overwhelmed? Well, this is what overwhelmed looks like.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have any fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle ache, diarrhea?

WELLS: At St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, every single one of the 488 adult beds is full. And it is like this all across the state. Dr. Rosalie Tocco-Bradley is chief clinical officer for Trinity Health Michigan.

ROSALIE TOCCO-BRADLEY: We are at capacity or over capacity. We have actually had to ship ventilators in from other sister hospitals outside of the state.

WELLS: Hospitals here were already understaffed even before this surge. And she says now health care workers are themselves getting sick.

TOCCO-BRADLEY: They are exhausted. They are frustrated. And I would say they are heartbroken, and they're heartbroken because they are seeing people die who don't have to die.

WELLS: Don't have to die, she says, because the vast majority of them could have gotten vaccinated. In Michigan, more than 87% of COVID hospitalizations are among people who are not fully vaccinated. Dr. Anurag Malani is the head of infectious disease at St. Joseph Mercy, and he says it is frustrating when he has to tell unvaccinated patients that they need to go on a ventilator or he doesn't know when they're going to come off.

ANURAG MALANI: You know, there's feelings of sadness. There's also feelings of anger - right? - that we're in a situation that, hey, you know, we could be not in this situation and things don't have to be as bad as they are.

WELLS: And they are bad. Eighty-four percent of the ICU beds in the state are full right now. And unlike previous surges that hit big cities like Detroit, this one is especially bad in rural areas where vaccination rates are lower. So when those smaller rural hospitals fill up, they start calling the larger hospitals, like Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. Dr. Darryl Elmouchi says in normal times, they would be able to take 50 transfer patients a day from smaller hospitals. But now they just don't have the room.

DARRYL ELMOUCHI: We'll get phone calls saying we're the 15th hospital they've called. Can we please help? And very often right now, the answer is no. And that's really - it's heartbreaking, and it's hard.

WELLS: And there's something else that makes this surge different, too. While COVID is driving high hospitalization rates, we are also seeing waves of people who do not have COVID but whose chronic conditions got worse during the pandemic. They are flooding emergency rooms like the one at St. Joe's in Ann Arbor. By early afternoon, there are more than 100 patients here, but the ER only has 70 beds, so they spill over into the hallways, sitting on chairs with an IV in their arms or attached to oxygen machines. Some are laying on stretchers out in the open. One woman with white hair is so desperate to see a doctor, she waves her arms from her stretcher trying to flag down Dr. Malani. He says it is clear that having doctors or health officials tell people over and over to get the COVID vaccine, that is just not working.

MALANI: And I think, you know, we need to think about the people that we actually are caring for in the hospital and having them really be the messengers for what things are like.

WELLS: Because, while outside the hospital, it can feel like things are sort of back to normal, inside the ER, the link between being unvaccinated and being hospitalized for COVID becomes very real. For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Ann Arbor, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUILTY GHOSTS' "EKTACHROME/ECTOPLASM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist and co-host of the Michigan Radio and NPR podcast Believed. The series was widely ranked among the best of the year, drawing millions of downloads and numerous awards. She and co-host Lindsey Smith received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Judges described their work as "a haunting and multifaceted account of U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s belated arrest and an intimate look at how an army of women – a detective, a prosecutor and survivors – brought down the serial sex offender."