Beaumont, patients share their experience during third COVID-19 surge

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Metro | Published April 19, 2021

 Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn is one of the system’s many facilities that has reached a critical level of COVID-19 patients, with a 97% bed occupancy rate.

Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn is one of the system’s many facilities that has reached a critical level of COVID-19 patients, with a 97% bed occupancy rate.

Photo provided by Tammy Battaglia, Beaumont Health System

OAKLAND COUNTY — Samantha Shelton, 34, of Lake Orion, knows first-hand how debilitating a COVID-19 infection can be.

She also knows how scary it can be to need treatment and not get it because medical centers are so overloaded with patients. She said she was turned away twice from Beaumont hospital in Troy because her case wasn’t deemed serious enough to be admitted.

“My first visit was April 7, and my second visit was April 9. They had me leave directly from the waiting room both times,” Shelton explained.

After that second dismissal, Shelton said she knew something was wrong and decided to try another hospital. Eight hours after her last visit to Beaumont, where the emergency center doctor canceled a planned X-ray and said she would recover fine without it, Shelton went to Ascension Providence Hospital in Rochester, where she was immediately admitted with COVID-19-induced pneumonia. She stayed for one day and then was sent home to continue a five-day steroid treatment.

“I honestly keep wondering how many people who are truly sick get turned away and don’t seek more help because they’re told they’re fine,” she said. “I believe because of my age, it’s just an assumption that I will be fine. … I actually can’t even walk to my bathroom without taking five minutes to catch my breath. It’s horrible.”

Hours can make all the difference
Robert Ortlieb, the senior media relations specialist for Beaumont Health, said he couldn’t comment on Shelton’s case specifically due to patient confidentiality laws. But being turned away from emergency treatment at Beaumont was likely because of three things: the severity of her case compared to others seeking help, the overload of patients with COVID-19, and finally, the unpredictability of the virus itself.

“That’s the thing about the disease — it can change drastically in just a few days or even hours,” Ortlieb said. “It’s not always cut and dry or objective. There’s some subjectivity left to the emergency center staff, and they do triage and do their best to try and take care of the most serious health concerns first.”

The overload reached a breaking point last week when Beaumont Health system announced it is close to hitting critical capacity levels, stretched thin on space and staff with the most recent surge of COVID-19 cases. Ortlieb said the positivity rate in metro Detroit is between 16%-22% currently — far above the 7%-10% public health officials would like to see.

Beaumont was also treating more than 800 patients systemwide as of April 15, which is a huge jump from earlier this year and higher than previous surges in December and even April 2020. Just three weeks ago, Beaumont was treating about 500 COVID patients.

“Our COVID-19 numbers are climbing higher and faster, and it’s very troubling and alarming to see this,” said Beaumont Health CEO John Fox in a press release. “We are grateful for the knowledge attained from the first two surges. It has helped save many lives. We also now have effective vaccines. To flatten the curve again, we all need to work together now: wear masks, wash hands, avoid large gatherings, practice social distancing and get vaccinated. We cannot do this alone. We need everyone’s help immediately.”

Many of the hospitals in metro Detroit are at or nearing capacity, with many COVID-19 units ranging from around 75% to 100% full, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The state of Michigan gauges capacity by the number of hospital beds available at a facility. As of April 16, Beaumont Farmington Hills, Royal Oak and Troy had bed occupancy at 95%, 92% and 100%, respectively, according to the definition of staffed, inpatient beds occupied by a patient regardless of COVID status — including surge and overflow beds.

At press time April 16, Region 2N overall, which consists of Oakland, Macomb and St. Clair counties, was about 75% full, with 6,283 beds total and 4,707 beds occupied with patients. Of the region’s 1,027 ventilators, 344 were in use.

Tents, triage and taming the third wave
To cope with the influx of patients, the system announced that it would reinstitute visitor restrictions immediately, allowing just one visitor per non-COVID patient, and that guests must be fully vaccinated. At busy emergency centers like the ones at Beaumont Hospital; Royal Oak; and Beaumont Hospital, Troy, triage tents are expected to be built outside of the facilities to assess incoming cases.

“The new COVID-19 variants are more contagious. The patients we are seeing are younger and some are sicker and in need of intense medical attention,” Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont’s medical director of infection prevention and epidemiology, said in a press release. “Some younger patients also seem to be waiting longer to get care, thinking they can beat the virus. By the time they come to the hospital, we’re seeing intense illness with pneumonia, blood clots and severe lung injury. This trend does not seem to be slowing down.”

There are gleams of hope to be seen, however, according to Ortlieb. The average age of COVID-19 patients is younger than it was last year. He explained that’s a good indication the vaccine is working, since Michigan’s older residents have likely been vaccinated and are not presenting with symptoms of the virus.

Deaths have stabilized or even dropped in relation to cases, since younger patients have been shown to pull through better than older counterparts.

Finally, this April is a lot different for hospital workers than last year, when personal protective equipment was hard to obtain. Medications are more plentiful, too, and more effective than what we had to work with last year.

“We have the beds, we have the PPE, we have the ventilators,” Ortlieb explained. “That was a big source of concern during the initial surge.”

The one thing in short supply is arguably the most important, though, and that’s medical professionals and hospital personnel. The industry was short on staff before, and the pandemic has only created a larger deficit of capable hands.

Should you stay or should you go
The public call to action from Beaumont officials is a familiar one: Help end this surge by continuing to wear masks, practice good hygiene — wash those hands and cover those coughs — and social distance from those who haven’t been vaccinated.

People who believe they’re in urgent need of care, by all means, should mask up and go to their nearest emergency room. They can also call their doctor or the Oakland County Health Division at (248) 858-1000. Beaumont also operates a coronavirus hotline for guidance, which can be reached at (800) 592-4784.

The Oakland County Health Division said residents should query their local hospital for advice on whether an emergency trip is appropriate.

“Because of the current surge, each hospital is going to have its own separate criteria of who they want coming to the hospital and who should stay home and check in with their physician or urgent care,” said Bill Mullan, the media and communications officer for Oakland County Executive David Coulter.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises patients to seek emergency medical care if they’re having trouble breathing, persistent pain or chest pressure, and new confusion. An inability to stay awake or having pale-, gray- or blue-colored skin, lips or nail beds are also considered to be dangerous symptoms.