A health care worker treats a patient in a Beaumont Health COVID-19 unit.

A health care worker treats a patient in a Beaumont Health COVID-19 unit.

Photos provided by Beaumont Health

Omicron ‘juggernaut’ threatens to send Beaumont Health past breaking point

Officials: Take precautions to save health care

By: Sarah Wojcik | Metro | Published January 8, 2022

 A U.S. Department of Defense medical team arrives at Beaumont Health last month for a 30-day mission to help COVID-19 patients in southeastern Michigan that was set to expire Jan. 2. The medical team’s stay recently was extended an additional 30 days.

A U.S. Department of Defense medical team arrives at Beaumont Health last month for a 30-day mission to help COVID-19 patients in southeastern Michigan that was set to expire Jan. 2. The medical team’s stay recently was extended an additional 30 days.


METRO DETROIT — On Jan. 6, officials from Beaumont Health and the U.S. Department of Defense appeared for a digital news conference to give an update about the health system’s becoming-overwhelmed resources; namely, its staff.

Dr. Nick Gilpin, medical director of infection, prevention and epidemiology for Beaumont Health, called the omicron COVID-19 variant a “juggernaut” virus — one whose rapid transmissibility likely has not been seen in “the modern era.”

The first wave of COVID-19 pushed medical professionals to their limits. This, Gilpin said, is now the fourth wave of COVID-19, and the omicron variant has an “intense widespread community transmission right now.”

The answer to “How can we help?” is the same as it was when the pandemic first began, he said: get vaccinated and boosted; wear a mask, especially in crowded places; stay home if sick with COVID-19 symptoms; and get tested.

“I know tests are difficult to find right now,” Gilpin said. “Vaccination is still a winning strategy. It may not prevent all diseases, but vaccination is extremely effective at keeping people out of the hospital, and it’s even better if you’re boosted.”

In recent studies, Gilpin said, a booster’s efficiency is as high as 80%-85% in terms of keeping people out of the hospital.

Doctors and nurses expressed gratitude for an extension of the 30-day stay of the DOD medical team, which has been assisting Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, since December and whose mission would have expired Jan. 2, for an additional 30 days.

“We’re really taxing both sides of the equation here. We’ve got more COVID patients in our hospital and we have fewer staff to care for these patients, so it’s really creating a mismatch and creating a lot of challenges in our system,” Gilpin said.

His two additional asks to the public inside hospitals: Wear masks. Be kind.

“All we’re asking is for people to be masking up and using common sense, particularly when they’re inside of our facilities,” Gilpin said. “Remember that the health care workers who are taking care of your loved ones are people too. We want to give the best care that we can give to the community, so we ask that you please help us do our job as effectively as we can.”

Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, Beaumont Health’s chief of clinical services and an orthopedic spine surgeon, said the system of eight hospitals is “at a point where it’s the worst it’s ever been” and “we’re afraid it’s going to get even worse next week.”

Gilpin stressed that the hospital system’s “most precious” resource is its staff.

“We can make more beds. We can open up units in the parking lot if we have to, but we need staff to be able to man those beds and, as the pandemic has worn on, we continue to battle staffing shortages,” he said. “With each subsequent surge, I think the psychological toll gets greater and greater.”

According to a Jan. 6 press release, Beaumont leadership advised hospitals to reduce elective surgical procedures, outpatient imaging and testing so that the health system can care for patients who require hospital beds, including patients with COVID-19, trauma, cancer or acute medical issues.

In order to reduce the spread of the virus and keep beds open, Beaumont Health also recently restricted visitation rules and changed policy to perform some previously in-patient surgeries as outpatient surgeries.

Beaumont Health has contingencies in place for dealing with the further loss of existing staff because it has been through the same situation before; however, the difference this time is societal behavior, Fischgrund said.

In April 2020, he said, the system had about 1,500 COVID-19 patients, but people were on lockdown and not coming to the hospital, even when they should have; as of Jan. 6, 2022, the system had more than 750 COVID-19 patients, but people are going out and about, getting in car accidents, and still coming to the hospital.

The number of COVID-19 patients includes 36 pediatric patients under the age of 18. Of the hospitalized patients, approximately 65% are unvaccinated and 35% are vaccinated, defined as two doses of the mRNA vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Gilpin said.

“We understand the omicron variant is more contagious, but it’s causing less severe disease overall, particularly among the vaccinated,” Gilpin said. “The last I saw, the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) put omicron at around 93% of all the COVID cases that we’re seeing (in the Midwest).”

As of Jan. 6, Beaumont Health had more than 430 employees who were currently out with COVID-19 symptoms, a substantial increase from the last couple of weeks. According to the release, the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in the system increased by 40% over the past week.

“I do not believe that we have completely peaked at this point, so I do expect more (cases) over the next several weeks, although I will concede that it is difficult to predict exactly where this pandemic is going,” Gilpin said.

Fischgrund said that should Beaumont Health hospitals become critically short-staffed, the contingency plan is to use qualified staff from non-emergency units and plug them into where they meet the needs. The system could also tap into its more than 900 residents to replace physicians, he said.

Over the past several weeks, Fischgrund said, Beaumont Health has had to deny transfers from smaller hospitals without high-level trauma centers that have patients they are unequipped to handle.

“As (health care workers), that is so hard to do,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking when we say we can’t take you now because we don’t have the resources.”

Mary Ellen Kochis, chief nursing officer for Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, said the DOD medical team transitioned some physicians out and brought in an additional six emergency room nurses. The team also includes eight critical care nurses, two respiratory therapists and two advanced practice nurses.

“I’m very proud of the nursing team,” Kochis said. “We have nurses that are going out with COVID-19 at a larger amount right now, and that is why we need the additional nursing staff. Along with that, we’ve had nurses leave the profession or go to be travel nurses for various reasons that met their needs.”

The additional nurses from the DOD, she said, have been instrumental in keeping the hospital running smoothly and in opening more critical care beds.

“We are very happy to be here to help with Beaumont Dearborn’s mission of taking care of COVID patients, and we’re looking forward to hopefully getting these numbers down and helping out with the patient care and serving the staff here as well,” said Lt. Col. Theresa Nowak, an Army Nurse Corps officer in charge of the DOD medical team.

Gilpin said herd immunity is the “golden ticket out of here,” but such a threshold of protection cannot become reality without more people getting vaccinated.

“Unfortunately, what we saw with the most recent variant is that if some of us are not protected, then, frankly, none of us are protected because it can mutate,” he said. “It can find a host, infect it, and rearrange itself in such a way and then those of us that have gotten vaccinated are all vulnerable all over again.”

For more information, visit beaumont.org or call (248) 577-9205.