Doctors stress vaccines, tout collaboration at chamber’s virtual health care summit

From left, Dr. Matt Biersack, Dr. Ronald Grifka and Dr. Joshua Kooistra speak at the Grand Rapids Chamber's virtual Health Care Summit. Courtesy Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce

West Michigan’s medical professionals agree, despite warnings of more COVID-19 cases, the vaccines are working and are necessary to help the region and the country come out of the pandemic.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce recently held a virtual health care summit, where industry leaders discussed the future of health care and what the industry learned from the pandemic. During the summit, Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the chamber, moderated a panel discussion with leaders from three health care systems based in West Michigan.

Since the middle of March, the average number of new Kent County cases per day increased from approximately 75 to over 100, the Business Journal previously reported. The county’s positivity rate also increased to 5.4% after two months of a 4% rate.

Dr. Matt Biersack, interim president and chief medical officer at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, said the increase in positivity is mostly among younger people, which could indicate the presence of a COVID-19 variant.

“We know there’s been a variant detected, based on testing done within the state,” Biersack said. “We know the so-called UK or B117 variant has definitely gained traction and spreads more rapidly, and there are even studies that have shown it’s more deadly than, sort of, the ‘native virus’ we saw last year.”

As more schools open to in-person learning, and sports open up as well, medical experts are concerned about the further spread of the virus among young people, Biersack said.

The existing vaccines produced by Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson still can be effective, though. Dr. Ronald Grifka, chief medical officer of Metro Health–University of Michigan Health, said there is some difference in how the vaccines tested against the strain that came out of China respond to the variants from the UK, Brazil and South Africa, but fortunately the vaccines showed positive results as far as decreasing hospital admissions.

“Although they may contract a very mild case of COVID — and it is very mild — they do not require hospitalization, and they for the most part remain quite healthy,” Grifka said.

Biersack said understanding the data behind COVID-19 still is an incredible logistical issue. Some literature indicates the South Africa and Brazil variants may have a higher mortality rate, but not enough evidence has surfaced yet for it to be definitive.

Increases in hospitalization are still occurring, however. Dr. Joshua Kooistra, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Spectrum Health West Michigan, agreed there is a trend toward younger people being admitted to hospitals because of COVID-19.

At Spectrum Health, the average age of COVID-19 admissions in November and December of last year was 65 years old, but in the past couple of weeks, the average age was 53, Kooistra said.

“I think that’s multifactorial,” Kooistra said. “It may be due to the variants, but also the effectiveness of vaccinating our older population, and we’re seeing great results from that. The only demographic we’re not seeing an increase of positivity or hospitalizations in the state is in the 70 and above age group.”

Biersack said once individuals are fully vaccinated, they can gather indoors and can gather with another family member who is vaccinated and has kids who are low risk, but it still is important at this point to follow CDC guidelines and mask indoors with people who are higher risk.

Even with the benefits of the vaccines, there still is some public hesitancy about getting vaccinated, whether because of trepidation or political conviction. Grifka said the general trend of distrust toward vaccines poses concerns for health professionals about finally kicking COVID-19.

“It’s a dangerous trend,” Grifka said. “Probably most of us have never seen a patient with polio. Due to vaccines, it’s been completely eliminated from the whole world. I think it’s important to educate the community that this vaccine, although the time period from the initial trial to administration was shorter than ever, it’s not because we cut short the science. It’s because we were making the vaccine as we were testing it. So once the approval came in, we had a million doses ready to be administered, as opposed to making it and then a lag before we started to administer it.”

With regard to hesitancy among women wanting to get pregnant or who are considering that possibility later on, Kooistra said the vaccine still is strongly encouraged, noting women who contracted COVID-19 have worse birth outcomes.

Johnston said the biggest concern among chamber members was, of course, getting their employees vaccinated. Kooistra said supply is going to be the constraining factor, even as eligibility to all age groups opens up.

“Our three health systems are always on call with the state of Michigan talking about supply that is available,” Kooistra said. “Unfortunately, the supply that we require to meet our demand still is not there,” Kooistra said. “I would say our efforts around the West Michigan Vaccination Clinic, which could potentially vaccinate over 20,000 people a day, is limited because of the supply.”

Kooistra remained hopeful the three vaccine manufacturers will increase their supply, but the state told Spectrum Health it still will be constrained for the next few weeks.

Kooistra said the best way for employers to get their workers scheduled is via or Any retail pharmacy will have online vaccination scheduling as well.

Johnston said one positive to arise from the pandemic was the collaboration among health systems, municipalities and other organizations to face COVID-19 together.

Biersack agreed, saying there is more of a community focus that has arisen because of COVID-19, with a greater focus on breaking down population data, so health systems can better service their communities in the future.

Grifka added the pandemic accelerated many new technologies, telehealth being the most apparent. While individuals still will need to go to the hospital for the best care, the addition of telemedicine means providers are able to reach more patients at their convenience.

Additionally, more consciousness around masks and hand washing has led to fewer cases of influenza this year, with just over 1,800 cases in the whole country according to the CDC, whereas an average flu season sees about 3,800 deaths.

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

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