Spectrum Health, West Michigan’s largest health system, announced to its employees Thursday that it was moving to “red status” for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

The announcement came after the Grand Rapids-based health system once again set a record for the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals. And it came a little more than a week after Munson Healthcare in Northern Michigan announced a similar move. Hospitals across the state have been flooded with coronavirus patients over the past two weeks, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.

And hospital leaders say COVID-19 isn’t the only problem they’re facing. Many hospitals across Michigan are also seeing high volumes of patients sick with non-COVID illnesses. The combination of those high volumes along with rapidly increasing COVID cases is sending many hospitals into crisis mode.

Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, announced the move to “red status” in an email to staff on Thursday:

“For the first time since the pandemic began, today we moved our command center status to red,” Elmouchi wrote in the email. “Between rapidly rising COVID cases, incredibly high censuses at all of our hospitals, remarkably high community positivity, an increasing number of admitted patients being held in our EDs for lack of beds, challenges to intra-facility transportation and discharge processes based on EMS and skilled nursing home capacity, hospitals in our region and adjacent regions constantly going on ER diversion due to their volumes and significant and ongoing staffing challenges, there is little question we are now in a different place than we’ve been the past 20 months. To be honest, the only reason we had any trepidation about formally declaring this elevated status, is we don’t know what comes next. We know the situation is difficult now, but what will positivity and census be in two weeks? While we hope to see improvement, we may be in an even more difficult situation and have no color beyond red.

“Regardless, by shifting to red, we are making clear to all of our teams and the community that this is different than anything we have experienced to this point and are marshalling all resources available to provide care to the community.”

Elmouchi said that the percentage of COVID tests that turn up positive has continued to rise to levels never seen before in the pandemic. On Thursday, Spectrum reported 25.9% of all COVID tests it performed were positive for the disease. Across Kent County, the 7-day average for COVID test positivity was at 22.5%, well above the state average, which is also on the rise.

As patient numbers have climbed, Elmouchi said Spectrum hospitals have begun to run short on beds. On Thursday, 42 patients were in “awaiting beds” in a Spectrum emergency department because there were no other beds in the hospital available, according to Elmouchi’s email to staff.

He said Spectrum is also struggling to keep up with the surging demand for monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 patients. The treatment has been found to be effective at lessening the severity of the disease, especially when given early. Now, so many people are requesting the treatment, Spectrum Health is having to ration its supplies.

“We are providing the most, or close to the most doses of mAB [monoclonal antibody treatment] across the state,” Elmouchi wrote in his email to staff. “For weeks, this has mostly met local demand. In the past week, demand has skyrocketed (alongside positivity). We are now getting upwards of 1,000 patient calls per day.”

Elmouchi says patients seeking monoclonal antibody treatment should call 616-391-0351 to schedule their doses, but only the patients in “greatest need” may be approved for the treatment at this time. He said the hospital system is working to increase its capacity. But he offered no prediction when additional doses might arrive, or when the current crisis facing the hospital system might ease. With test positivity still very high and holiday gatherings coming next week, he said the near term outlook isn’t good.

“[I]t is hard to imagine that the situation doesn’t worsen before it gets better,” Elmouchi wrote. “Please know that we are doing everything we can to shore up and, in many cases, divert resources to meet the need. We also are doing all we can to support our teams and also educate the public on what is really happening. Even for those in our communities who somehow don’t believe that COVID is a problem, we are making it very clear that all are at risk from COVID’s impact on our regional and state health infrastructure, affecting non-COVID care as well.”