With thousands of new COVID-19 cases reported daily in Wisconsin and hospitals continuing to reaching capacity, the pandemic has continued to surge back in the state, hospital and health officials said Thursday.
In Wisconsin’s west and northwest, as well as in the Fox Valley, intensive care unit beds are full, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. COVID-19 is now at “critically high” levels in 26 of the state’s 72 counties, the Department of Health Services (DHS) reported on its latest map of the pandemic’s trajectory. The remaining 46 counties have a “very high” level of disease.
And while health providers are watching for signs of the newly identified omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the current culprit remains the delta variant that surfaced this summer.
“As of today, delta remains the dominant variant in Wisconsin as in the U.S., and is found in more than 99% of the virus samples” evaluated by labs working with DHS, said Karen Timberlake, secretary-designee at DHS.
The average number of new cases a day has topped 3,000, according to DHS, and the state has now confirmed 9,093 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. “This is a milestone no one ever wanted to see,” Timberlake told reporters at a DHS pandemic briefing Thursday.
“Our health care systems are overwhelmed right now,” said Dr. Ashok Rai, president and CEO of Prevea Health, a network of health care providers based in Green Bay.
With winter coming, hospitals can expect to see an increase in demand, particularly for patients with heart attacks, strokes and traumatic accidents, Rai said.
Currently, COVID-19 patients account for about 20% of the patients in the hospitals affiliated with Prevea, however. One Green Bay hospital turned away 28 patients, including three with strokes, on a recent day because it was full; one patient had to travel 200 miles “just to get the basic care that they needed,” said Rai.
“That wouldn’t happen if we had those beds and staff available to take care of them, which are now being occupied by COVID-19 patients,” he said. “No health care system is designed to have 20% of extra capacity just sitting there, waiting for something.”
The shortage of staff is the key issue, Rai said, because COVID-19 patients “are extremely labor intensive,” requiring more health care workers per person than some other conditions.
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Hospital capacity has been further strained by reduced nursing home capacity due to staff shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks. Patients who are ready for rehabilitation care may be unable to leave the hospital because nursing homes are full. “There are times we might have up to 14 patients waiting, occupying a hospital bed, waiting for a nursing home,” Rai said.
The state has contracted with agencies that provide temporary health care staffers to help ease the strain in long-term care as well as hospitals. The number of people available to fill those positions is limited, however, and states are all competing for them. “People who really are needed right now in the COVID-19 response are needed absolutely everywhere,” Timberlake said.
The delta difference
The vast majority of hospitalized patients are not vaccinated, according to DHS. People without a vaccine for COVID-19 are nine times more likely to be hospitalized if they get infected, compared with vaccinated people who experience a subsequent infection, Timberlake said. And the death rate for unvaccinated people who get the infection is 11 times that of vaccinated people.
“The bottom line is that vaccines are highly protective against hospitalization, serious illness and death from COVID-19,” Timberlake said.
Unvaccinated COVID-19 patients also are often much sicker patients, Rai added, and they might need longer hospitalization. The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators in the state reached 688 earlier this week — the highest since the start of the pandemic, said Timberlake. It last peaked at 638, more than a year ago.
The current surge, which began in July, is due to the emergence of the delta variant, which “is just that much more contagious,” Timberlake said.
Large numbers of people 65 or older were fully vaccinated by then. But because younger adults weren’t vaccinated in comparable percentages and children were not vaccinated at all, “delta found lots of people that it could infect,” she said. Since August, people younger than 18 have gone from having the lowest infection rate to the largest number of cases.
The increase in infections is especially concentrated in the age group of 4- to 13-year-olds. Most of them, ages 5 to 11, only recently became eligible for vaccines. To date 87,000 children in that age range have gotten at least a first COVID-19 shot, according to DHS.
While children typically experience less-severe symptoms than older COVID-19 patients, there have been 1,800 Wisconsin residents younger than 18 hospitalized for the infection. In addition, children infected with the virus are likely to transmit it to others in their family who might be older. “And all of that contributes to the problem that we’re all working so hard to combat,” Timberlake said.
Although it has not yet been identified in Wisconsin as of Thursday, the omicron variant will show up sooner or later, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the chief medical officer in the DHS communicable diseases bureau. It has already been detected in neighboring Minnesota. While it has been found to spread even more rapidly than the delta variant, scientists don’t know yet whether the omicron variant causes more serious illness than previous forms of the virus.
Watching for omicron
Both in response to the continued spread of delta, but also to speed the detection of omicron as it moves into Wisconsin, health officials are encouraging people to get tested for the virus when they have upper respiratory symptoms of an infection or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive.
Timberlake said testing is available in all counties, whether through public health departments, local health providers or drug stores, and that 75% of public school districts in the state are participating in a testing program for K-12 students and staff. In November, more than 35,000 people were tested in that school-based testing program, she said.
The best weapons to apply to reversing the current surge of cases remains the vaccine, Timberlake said, now available to everyone 5 or older, and a booster for fully vaccinated people who are 18 or older. The remaining tools are those that have been urged throughout the pandemic to reduce the spread of the virus: wearing a mask in public indoor settings, staying home when sick, washing hands often and thoroughly and getting tested if experiencing symptoms, she said.
“We need to buckle down and commit to taking these steps,” said Timberlake. “We all have responsibility for keeping ourselves and our family members healthy so that our kids can stay in school, workers can be at work and our hospitals and nursing homes can care for the people who really need them.”
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