Published in Health Care

Reporter's Notebook: West Michigan health care executives set aside competition during pandemic

BY Sunday, March 28, 2021 06:15pm

The COVID-19 pandemic that stretched health systems during the past year also brought together health care executives as they responded to the crisis.

Leaders at health systems say they quickly set aside their competitive natures and kept in regular contact in the last year. Chief medical officers talked daily to share data and best practices for managing the crisis, keeping staff safe, treating patients with COVID-19, and how to plan and prepare.

“We’ve all learned so much,” Dr. Matt Biersack, chief medical officer and interim president at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, said last week in a virtual panel held during the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Health Care Summit.

“It’s been incredible to collaborate,” Biersack said. “We’re all thinking about the population and the community that we have here in the greater Grand Rapids area far more than we ever did before.”

Biersack joined his fellow chief medical officers, Dr. Ronald Grifka at Metro Health-University of Michigan Health and Spectrum Health’s Dr. Joshua Kooistra, in a Zoom discussion on the pandemic’s effects on health care.

“At times you just need to work together as a team to help protect the community,” said Grifka, who also cited the “collegiality” among health systems and local health departments resulting from the public health crisis.

One area of collaboration Biersack noted was sorting data by age and demographics to identify who and what communities are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus and COVID-19 — and “how do we serve them better and how do we work more closely together?”

“Those are learnings that I hope we carry with us long, long into the future,” he said.

The biggest collaboration has been with the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids that’s operated through a partnership between Mercy Health, Spectrum Health and the Kent County Health Department. The clinic, which opened in January, has the capacity to do 20,000 or more vaccines a day, although doses remain somewhat limited even with increased availability of late.

The three Grand Rapids-area health systems participate in calls with the state twice a week talking about vaccine dose availability, Kooistra said.

“As eligibility opens up, certainly supply is still going to be the constraining factor,” Kooistra said. “Our hope is that Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson will increase manufacturing efforts. I’m sure they’re trying to fire on all cylinders right now, but our hope is that we will see increased supply in the next month or so. But the state of Michigan has told us that it’s still going to be constrained for the next few weeks.”

Pfizer Inc. has been ramping up production of its vaccine, including at its primary site in Portage, according to Molly Williams, the company’s director of state government affairs. Pfizer has contracts to sell the U.S. government 300 million vaccine doses this year, Williams said.

The company has so far shipped 70 million doses since December. It expects to make 120 million doses available to the federal government by the end of March and 200 million by the end of May, Williams said. Pfizer should ship the remaining doses to the U.S. government by the end of July, she said.

Improvements in manufacturing processes have reduced vaccine production and release times from 110 days to about 60 days, Williams said.

“We foresee no issues in delivering on the commitments we’ve made to the U.S. government. Our facility in Kalamazoo is the primary manufacturing site of our COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. and we anticipate no interruptions in shipments at this facility as we look to scale up our production this year,” she said.

As Pfizer and the other vaccine makers increase production, vaccine eligibility expands and some restrictions loosen in Michigan and around the U.S., the task for health systems now is to ensure vaccines are administered equitably and people are educated about vaccine safety, Grifka said.

“The more people we get vaccinated the better we’ll be,” he said. “This is how we’re going to get back to normal living.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on April 6 expands eligibility for a vaccine to anyone 16 years old and up.

Other long-term changes for health systems brought on by the pandemic include the use of telehealth that soared early in the pandemic, Grifka said.

Grikfa also sees the possibility that even after the pandemic wanes, people will wear face masks during flu season each winter to protect themselves. He cited U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing the number of people in the U.S. who had the flu — which annually kills thousands — declined dramatically as a result of face mask mandates, better hand hygiene and social distancing.

“There may be some long-term effects that are very positive for the community,” Grifka said. “These keep people out of the hospital, out of the doctors’ offices, and back at work and with their families.”

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