Nurse Katie Sefton never thought COVID-19 could get this bad, and certainly not so long after the pandemic started. “I really hoped (everyone) would get vaccinated and everything would go back to normal,” said Sefton, assistant manager at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Michigan.

But this week, Michigan had more hospitalized covid-19 patients than ever. Covid-19 hospitalizations increased 88% in the past month, according to the Michigan Hospital and Health Association.

“We have more patients than we’ve ever had, and we’re seeing more people die at a rate we’ve never seen before,” said Jim Dover, president and CEO of Sparrow Health System.

“Since January, we’ve had about 289 deaths; 75% are unvaccinated people,” Dover said. “And the few (vaccinated people) who died were more than 6 months after receiving the vaccine. Therefore, we have not had a single person who received a booster dose who died from covid.”

Among the new victims of COVID-19, Sefton said she noticed a disturbing trend.

“We’re seeing a lot of younger people. And I think that’s a bit challenging,” said Sefton, a nurse with 20 years of experience.

She remembers helping a young adult’s family say goodbye to their loved one.

“It was a terrible night,” she said. “That was one of the days that I went home and cried.”

‘We haven’t reached the peak yet’

It’s not just Michigan facing a harsh winter with covid-19. Nationwide, COVID-19 hospitalizations are up 40% compared to the previous month, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

This is the first Christmas season with the relentless spread of the delta variant, a strain far more contagious than those faced by Americans last winter.

“We keep saying we haven’t peaked yet,” Sefton said.

Health experts say the best protection against delta is to get vaccinated and get a booster dose. But as of Thursday, only about 64.3% of eligible Americans had been fully vaccinated, and less than a third of those eligible for booster doses had received one.

Danielle Williams, a nurse at Sparrow Hospital, said the vast majority of her covid-19 patients are not vaccinated and had no idea that they could be affected so badly by the disease.

“Before they walked in the door, they had a normal life. They were healthy people. They were celebrating Thanksgiving,” Williams said. “And now they are here, with a mask on their face, teary eyes, looking at me, wondering if they are going to live or not.”

‘The next few weeks look tough in Michigan’

Dover said he is sad but not surprised that his condition is being battered by COVID-19.

“Michigan is not one of the highest vaccinated states in the nation. Therefore, it continues to grow and expand variant after variant statewide,” he said.

“The next few weeks look tough. We are over 100% capacity right now,” said Dover.

“Most of the hospitals and healthcare systems in the state of Michigan have moved to code red classification, which means they will not accept transfers. And as we get closer to the holidays, with the current growth rate in the we are in today, I would expect to see 200 covid inpatients at the end of the month, every day.”

And that would mean “stretching absolutely to breaking point,” Dover said.

“We have already ruled out elective inpatient surgeries,” he said. “To build capacity, we took our post-anesthetic recovery unit and turned it into another intensive care unit.”

‘There is a lot of frustration’

Nurse Leah Rasch is exhausted. She has worked with covid-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic and was surprised to see so many still unvaccinated people enter the covid unit.

“I didn’t think we would be here. I really thought people would get vaccinated,” said the Sparrow Hospital nurse.

“I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have a full covid floor.”

The relentless onslaught of COVID-19 patients has affected Rasch’s own health.

“There is a lot of frustration,” he said. “The other day, I had my first panic attack. I drove to work and couldn’t get out of the car.”

‘We need everyone to get vaccinated’

Dover said many people have asked how they can support healthcare workers.

“If you really want to support your staff, and you really want to support health care heroes, get vaccinated,” he said. “It’s not a political thing. We need everyone to get vaccinated.”

He is also urging people who have already had COVID-19 to get vaccinated, as some people can become re-infected.

“My daughter is a good example. She had COVID twice before she was eligible for a vaccine,” said Dover.

“She still got vaccinated because we know that if you don’t get vaccinated, just having contracted COVID is not enough to protect you from contracting it again. And I know this from personal experience.”

And those who are not vaccinated should not underestimate the pandemic at this point, Dover said.

“The problem is, it’s not over yet. I don’t know if people realize how important it is yet,” he said.

“But they find out when they go into the ER and have to wait three days to get a bed. And at that point, they figure it out.”

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