UPPER PENINSULA, MI (December 21, 2020) Hospitals across the Upper Peninsula are coming together in new ways to face the challenges caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The leaders of hospitals both large and small agree that the current medical crisis is unprecedented. It has affected every aspect of operations, from finances to staffing, and has exacerbated existing geographical challenges that affect patient transfers, supply chain management and more. But thanks to a spirit of cooperation and perseverance common across the region, the Upper Peninsula’s hospitals have come together to share ideas and resources so that every patient continues to receive high quality care.
COVID-19 is unlike any challenge that hospitals around the world have seen before. In the early days of the pandemic, the U.P. was largely spared. However, patients grew cautious and opted out of elective procedures and routine check-ups. Some smaller hospitals experienced a drop in volume. Then when COVID hit the region in September, the pendulum swung hard. The region’s 15 hospitals are more geographically isolated than in other parts of the state, with an existing system to transfer patients to regional centers as needed. COVID has put a significant strain on that system.
Dave Lord, President of OSF HealthCare St. Francis Hospital & Medical Group in Escanaba, explains, “We’re seeing many more severe illnesses and it’s impacted the entire system of care. When you rely heavily on your regional medical centers to support care, the rural hospitals to have to step up and do more. It’s posed many new challenges.”
Fortunately, U.P. hospitals have a foundation of collaboration that is helping to relieve some of the pressure. The hospitals are part of the U.P. Hospital Council, which meets regularly to collaborate on issues related to public policy, safety, quality, coverage, access and more. Hospitals have traditionally put the competition aside and worked together in both formal and informal structures to improve access to and quality of care throughout the region. In the face of the pandemic, that level of cooperation has only increased.
After the initial statewide shut-down, when U.P. hospitals were pushing to be permitted to re-open to non-essential procedures, that cohesiveness was critical. InvestUP CEO Marty Fittante recalls, “At their request, we were able to quickly convene a call with the CEOs of every hospital in the U.P., along with the entire state and federal legislative delegation, to outline our case for opening up U.P. hospitals for non-essential procedures. Within hours of that call, we submitted two letters — one signed by the U.P. hospital CEOs and one signed by nearly every economic development organization in the U.P. — to the Administration and the legislature. These letters were instrumental in the passage of SR 111, which urged the Administration to re-open the hospitals.” The hospitals have since issued a joint statement proclaiming their unity in following best practices.
The collaboration efforts extend beyond legislative advocacy. The hospital CEOs meet weekly to discuss how they can work together. Gar Atchison, CEO of UP Health System in Marquette, initiated the conversations as the pandemic was unfolding. At first conversations revolved around testing — who needed kits and how turnaround times could be improved. That evolved into discussions about supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators and high flow oxygen systems supplies, and then about capacity – who’s getting stretched thin and whether it’s physical, like bed space, or staffing. U.P. hospital chief medical officers also meet routinely to discuss clinical aspects of care, like transition of care between rural hospitals and regional medical centers.
Melissa Holmquist, CEO of Upper Peninsula Health Plan reflects the feelings of many health professionals. “I am in awe of how coordinated U.P. hospitals have always been, but their collaboration during this pandemic has been remarkable. It is inspiring to see so many different health systems, across a large rural region, come together to support each other and their communities during this unprecedented health crisis. They have risen to the challenge and beyond.”
As cases continue to climb in the Upper Peninsula and across the state. Frontline workers are faced with COVID-19 daily. The increases in patient volume have an outsized impact on both small community hospitals and larger regional centers. Smaller hospitals rely on regional trauma centers for hospital transfers requiring intensive care. With the recent surge, most ICU beds are occupied or near capacity. It has become increasingly difficult to transfer patients to higher levels of care. This turn affects patients requiring transfer for non-COVID related emergencies.
Bob Crumb, CEO at Schoolcraft Memorial Hospital says, “We’re relying on the public to do their part. Masking up, washing your hands and taking social distancing guidelines seriously are extremely important. Severe outbreaks could devastate the Upper Peninsula and put significant stress on local health systems. We urge the public to wear a mask whenever they’re in public and avoid gatherings with people outside of their household. Anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should get tested and avoid going into the public until they have results.“
The CEOs hope that the cooperation they have initiated will extend to the public, and that they will do their part in keeping their friends, family and neighbors safe. Crumb pleads, “Our healthcare heroes need support and encouragement during these unprecedented times. Every community member plays a role in combatting the spread of COVID-19. Our hospitals will be here when you need us most, please continue to do small things to protect the community you live in.”
Lord, of OSF ST. Francis, is optimistic about the work of the U.P. medical community and the people they serve. “There’s a lot happening with efforts to promote safe practices, and there’s also a lot of support behind ‘Yooper Strong’ and people coming together. We’re a unique group of people. This will have a long lasting impact on our region, but I hope that it will also have some long lasting benefits. At the end of the day, we’re all Yoopers taking care of Yoopers.”
InvestUP is a private sector-led economic development organization keenly focused on driving economic growth across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Founded by the region’s leading private sector businesses and the region’s universities, its mission is to deliver business and job growth across the peninsula.