By Jon King /


It’s a sound that has sadly become all too familiar at hospitals across Michigan, including the Intensive Care Unit at St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell.

The steady swoosh of air being pushed into a patient's lungs punctuated by a mechanical, rhythmic clicking is the unmistakable sound of a ventilator keeping a critically ill COVID patient alive. When WHMI visited St. Joe Mercy last Thursday, all eight of their ICU pods had COVID patients in them, several on ventilators.

St. Joe Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. Varsha Moudgal and Hospital President John O’Malley served as escorts to provide a first-hand look at the situation in their ICU. As nurses donned personal protective gear that more resembled a spacesuit with a fully-enclosed helmet and breathing apparatus, WHMI asked Dr. Moudgal how many of the eight patients, including those on ventilators, had been vaccinated.

"My understanding is none," she said, then adding "That is very typical for us."

The life or death nature of seeing individuals being kept alive through artificial means was striking, especially so when considering that they might not otherwise be in that situation but for an easily obtained vaccination. Dr. Moudgal said that what was also striking was the strain this all placed on an already-stressed staff. "These patients require intensive care from physicians (and) nurses, so the staff here are really stretched thin to care for all of these patients and provide that intensive level of monitoring that each of them need."

As the Delta variant has ripped through Michigan, propelling COVID numbers to new pandemic highs in recent weeks, hospitals have been stretched thin trying to care for the influx of patients with COVID while also accommodating the day-in, day-out medical needs of the community. "The thing to remember," said Dr. Moudgal, "is that because we have COVID that doesn't mean that every other illness no longer exists. People still get other infections, urinary tract infections, gallbladder issues, heart attacks, they break bones. All of these things continue to happen and it just drains our ability to provide care for the community."

O’Malley emphasized that anyone truly in need of emergency care should seek it at their Emergency Department (ED), but that because of the overflow of COVID patients and the strain on their staff, they’ve been forced to prioritize care decisions. "This is why we've asked the community if you need COVID testing or vaccinations, please go someplace else. Do not come to our EDs for that."

O'Malley also worries that if more people don’t start to take seriously the crisis we are in and get vaccinated, those decisions will become even more heartbreaking to have to make.