MUNSON MEDICAL CENTER (copy)

Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, part of Munson Healthcare.

TRAVERSE CITY — Hospitalizations for COVID-19 jumped again with Munson Medical Center tallying 73 inpatient cases in its Traverse City hospital.

Across all Munson facilities, 134 patients are currently hospitalized — a peak for the hospital system and a barometer of the intensity of a fourth wave of coronavirus that has touched every county in Michigan over the past few weeks.

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In a Tuesday press conference, doctors and county health officials made it clear that the current wave is only escalating, straining hospitals and that pediatricians are overbooked, understaffed and nervous that case numbers will only climb during the holidays.

“We’re basically overwhelmed,” said Jim Robertson, a pediatrician with Kids Creek Children’s Clinic in Garfield Township. “Numbers are through the roof. It’s hard to get an appointment now, even at the urgent cares.”

Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer for the Grand Traverse County Health Department, said that the county had six deaths in the past seven days, underscoring that the virus continues to remain deadly, particularly for the unvaccinated, the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

Hirschenberger likened the current surge to the holiday wave that occurred at this same time last year. Patient hospitalizations climbed as congregate settings increasingly moved indoors and Thanksgiving travel brought contagious patients over state lines.

The result has been a doubling of cases in the last two weeks, Hirschenberger said, as well as a percent-positivity of 20.3 percent.

“That’s the highest we’ve ever seen,” Hirschenberger said.

At Munson, 24 percent of hospitalized patients are vaccinated, said Christine Nefcy, the hospital system’s chief medical officer. Of the 56 patients currently in an ICU bed, seven are vaccinated.

Nefcy said that these breakthrough cases shouldn’t be viewed as a failure of the vaccine. The breakthrough case hospitalizations tend to be in older patients with comorbidities that exacerbate COVID-19.

“That hospitalization rate really does continue to be high in those older members of our community that have underlying conditions,” Nefcy said. “Those people that we’ve been asking to continue to cocoon themselves, we would still say that. You need to be very careful, regardless of your vaccination status.”

Data from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services also continue to support the vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing fatal cases of COVID-19.

The resurgent case numbers are also triggering some changes operationally. Nefcy said that visitation times are now being limited to two hours — with some exceptions for pediatric or obstetric patients. Other patients are now only being allowed one visitor per day.

The new rules went into effect on Tuesday.

Pediatric cases are also causing increasing concern. Under 20 percent of children aged 5 to 11 have been vaccinated in both Benzie-Leelanau Health District and Grand Traverse County, according to data presented at the press conference by county health officers.

“We still do see kids who get very very sick with COVID-19, and in this most recent surge we have seen an increase in pediatric patients hospitalized with COVID-19,” Nefcy said.

Munson Medical Center does not have a pediatric ICU, which means that children with more severe illness are being sent to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. Nefcy estimated that the hospital had already transferred 10 pediatric patients.

Robertson, the Kid’s Creek pediatrician, attributed the surge partly to school reopening. He said that whole families test positive as children pick up cases in the classroom and bring the virus home.

In his clinic, Robertson said he’d seen cases in children as young as 2 years old. Of the 20 to 30 pediatric patients he tests a day, he estimates half turn out to be positive cases.

“There’s a lot of thought that kids don’t get that sick, so why would we be so worried about it?” Robertson said.

“But I think what’s concerning from a community standpoint — and we see that with flu every year — is that when the infection gets to the pediatric population, that’s what drives it in the community.”

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