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SJML top doc: “Game changer” vaccine is “light at the end of the tunnel”

Dr. Varsha Moudgal

Staffers at Saint Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell lined up Thursday to cheer a COVID-19 patient who was going home after being on a ventilator for an extended period of time.

“It was a thrill for us,” said Dr. Varsha Moudgal, SJML’s chief medical officer, who is also an infectious disease specialist.

While that patient was heading home, as they have every day of the week, cars were lining up on the west side of the hospital for its drive-through COVID-19 testing program.

At the same time, preparations were being made for the arrival of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency use approval from the FDA on Friday.

“We are gearing up,” Moudgal said. “St. Joe’s in Ann Arbor is getting the vaccine next week, and it’s possible we’ll be getting it (at SJML) the next week. We are working on the logistics.”

The hospital is teaming up with the Livingston County Health Department on the vaccination program. When the first batch of vaccines arrives, half will go to nursing homes, and half will go to health care workers and EMS employees. After that, Moudgal said, vaccinations will begin in the community.

Small facility, big access

A tool created by NPR, using data from the University of Minnesota’s COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project, shows that at SJML, 32 percent of its adult beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, a percentage that puts it in the “extreme stress” category, according to the project.

Compared with other hospitals in the area, only Henry Ford West Bloomfield ranks higher. And on a county level, that percentage puts Livingston ahead of Oakland, Washtenaw, Ingham and Genesee counties.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, Moudgal said.

“Tools are great, but there are limits,” she said. “The tool doesn’t take into account that we are part of a much-larger system.”

SJML works closely with its sister hospital, Saint Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, as well as other facilities in Michigan that are part of Trinity Health, a nationwide, not-for-profit, Catholic health system of 92 hospitals. This system brings a wealth of resources and supply chain access to the 66-bed SJML.

“We can transfer patients when it’s needed,” Moudgal said. “Every day we talk about staffing, beds, what we need, what others need.”

Being part of a large, supportive health system is a “huge advantage.”

“We have not stopped any other services, and we have space to spare,” Moudgal said. “We can easily take more patients.”

“Crazy busy”

There is a “fatigue factor” among the hospital employees, Moudgal said, adding that caring for the community in the time of COVID-19 has kept SJML “crazy busy.”

“It’s tiring caring for COVID-19 patients,” she said, but staffers have come through in a wonderful way.

“We have a fabulous staff,” she said.

Inside the building is an entire floor that Moudgal said is “outfitted and ready” to open as additional space for COVID-19 patients if and when it’s needed.

So far, it’s remained closed, but at the ready.

“We can open those beds at any time,” Moudgal said.

Hopefully — with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines — those beds will never be needed.

The vaccine, Moudgal said, is a “game changer.”

But she cautions that while the game may be changing, this isn’t the time to let down our guard.

“We all still need to stay doing OK,” she said, “The community needs to continue doing its part,” which includes maintaining vigilance about wearing masks, keeping distance, and washing hands.

“It’s human to relax, but we can’t,” Moudgal said. “The light at the end of the tunnel is there.”

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