Inside the emergency department at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Michigan, staff members are struggling to care for patients showing up much sicker than they’ve ever seen.
Tiffani Dusang, the ER’s nursing director, practically vibrates with pent-up anxiety, looking at patients lying on a long line of stretchers pushed up against the beige walls of the hospital hallways. “It’s hard to watch,” she said in a warm Texas twang.
But there’s nothing she can do. The ER’s 72 rooms are already filled.
“I always feel very, very bad when I walk down the hallway and see that people are in pain, or needing to sleep, or needing quiet. But they have to be in the hallway with, as you can see, 10 or 15 people walking by every minute,” Dusang said.
The scene is a stark contrast to where this emergency department — and thousands of others — were at the start of the pandemic. Except for initial hot spots like New York City, in spring 2020 many ERs across the country were often eerily empty. Terrified of contracting covid-19, people who were sick with other things did their best to stay away from hospitals. Visits to emergency rooms dropped to half their typical levels, according to the Epic Health Research Network, and didn’t fully rebound until this summer.
But now, they’re too full. Even in parts of the country where covid isn’t overwhelming the health system, patients are showing up to the ER sicker than before the pandemic, their diseases more advanced and in need of more complicated care.
Months of treatment delays have exacerbated chronic conditions and worsened symptoms. Doctors and nurses say the severity of illness ranges widely and includes abdominal pain, respiratory problems, blood clots, heart conditions and suicide attempts, among other conditions.