State moves to patch gaps in health care staffing

As COVID-19 stresses hospitals, Wisconsin turns to temporary help and federal emergency support

By: - December 9, 2021 6:40 am

An exhausted health care worker in protective coveralls wipes her brow after surgery, working in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Getty Images)

Wisconsin is dispatching contract health care workers to bolster staffs run ragged by caring for COVID-19 patients and is preparing to receive federal assistance in the coming weeks as the pandemic continues its latest surge.

New daily cases of COVID-19 have been rising since the summer, with unvaccinated people accounting for a large majority of infections and the most severe outcomes, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). And vaccines remain the No. 1 weapon to curbing the pandemic’s revival, said Gov. Tony Evers at a DHS briefing for reporters Wednesday.

Gov. Tony Evers vetoes bills making it harder to vote on Aug. 10 | Evers' YouTube
Gov. Tony Evers | YouTube

“I’m going to sound like a broken record, but the science is clear,” said Evers. “According to DHS, those who are unvaccinated are five times more likely to be infected, 11 times more likely to be hospitalized and 15 times more likely to die from COVID-19.”

The governor urged Wisconsin residents to get vaccinated, get booster shots if they qualify, and to voluntarily adopt other mitigation measures: masking indoors and in crowds, frequent and thorough hand-washing, staying home when ill and getting tests if a person experiences COVID-19 symptoms or has been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

“Our strategies haven’t changed,” Evers said. “Now is a time to double down on our efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

As of Tuesday, DHS recorded 3,519 new cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, and the state has averaged 3,155 new cases per day over the last seven days. Another 33 people were added Tuesday to the state’s death toll from the virus, and with an average of 23 Wisconsinites dying each day over the last seven days.

“We have not seen this level of disease activity since December of 2020,” said Karen Timberlake, DHS secretary-designee.

The delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to power the new surge, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases. The recently identified omicron variant has now been found in samples from three more people tested for the virus in Wisconsin, in addition to the first that DHS reported on Dec. 4, he said.

There have been 9,237 confirmed deaths in Wisconsin from COVID-19, and more than 1,000 additional deaths for which the state has listed COVID-19 as a “probable” cause.

Hospitals approaching capacity

Hospitals, which have been filling up for weeks, remain full or nearly so across the state. Almost 97% of the state’s intensive care unit beds are full, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, with COVID-19 patients accounting for nearly one out of three ICU occupants.

“When our beds are full of COVID-19 patients and our health care providers are stretched thin, hospitals have to go on diversion, turning away patients who need care and causing folks to travel miles from home for care,” Evers said.

He emphasized the demand that the pandemic has put on health care workers and hospital systems as he urged people to get vaccinated and to follow other public health measures. “We need to be doing everything we can to help support them, lighten their burden and ensure that they can stay healthy and safe to do their jobs,” the governor said.

Faced with health care staff shortages across the state intensified by the pandemic, DHS signed a staffing agency contract in October for more than 360 nurses, certified nursing assistants and other health care workers. Those personnel will be deployed at hospitals and long-term care facilities around Wisconsin, Timberlake said.

So far more than 270 hospitals and nursing homes have requested support. DHS is spending $19 million so far on the project, with the funding coming from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the federal pandemic relief legislation enacted in March.

Working with the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs and Wisconsin Emergency Management, DHS is also seeking medical reserve teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Karen Timberlake will take over as interim secretary at the state Department of Health Services.
Karen Timberlake

They’re expected weeks from now, Timberlake said. As many as five teams of 20 health care workers each could be mustered into duty to bolster ICU staffing and fill other gaps in the health care workforce — although with demand high across the country, she noted, there may be limits. National Guard nurses and CNAs have also been helping with vaccination clinics, providing COVID-19 testing in schools and other tasks.

Timberlake said 59.2% of Wisconsin residents have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 56.3% are fully vaccinated. About 100,000 children ages 5 to 11 — the most recent group to qualify for a vaccine — have gotten a shot, which represents about 20% of that age group in the state. “And we just began doing that work around a month ago,” she said. “So we’re really excited about the [uptake] of vaccination for our 5- to 11-year-old kids.”

‘Time to do the right thing’

In addition to restoring public health, Evers said, “getting vaccinated is also the key to ensuring our statewide economic recovery.” Helping small businesses to get back on their feet, making it easier for people to fill jobs and controlling rising costs — “all of this depends on our ability to put this pandemic behind us once and for all,” he said.

Earlier this week, the administration announced $14 million in new aid for movie theaters, summer camps and minor league baseball clubs to offset losses due to the pandemic. Last week, Evers released $110 million for schools to help them enrich their offerings and fill gaps left by new expenses brought on because of COVID-19. Both grants came from Wisconsin’s federal ARPA allotment.


“If you’re worried about our kids recovering, if you’re worried about our economy, if you’re worried about rising costs and where our economy is headed, get vaccinated,” Evers said.

Responding to a Green Bay reporter’s question about people who have declared their exhaustion with mitigation measures and vaccines and “have decided to return to their normal lives,” the governor suggested that getting vaccinated, masking and maintaining physical distance didn’t have to conflict with otherwise “returning to their former lives.”

“That said, if you truly care about your neighbors and the fact that our hospitals — and the Green Bay area is a good example — are reaching their limit and have no place to go for sick people … it’s time to do the right thing, and that is to be vaccinated,” Evers said.

With that, he pivoted to a pitch to state lawmakers.

“There’s no reason why that can’t happen,” Evers continued. “It would be great if our state representatives decided to do it … They should be encouraging local people to get vaccinated. They are leaders, people do listen to them, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. Having a legislator get on the media, talk about the importance of vaccines. We just can’t let our hospitals go into crisis mode here, folks. And we need everybody to do that.”

He acknowledged that “there’s lots of people that are against vaccines out there,” and then pressed on. “But people can change our minds,” Evers added. “And I think if we all get together and encourage people to be vaccinated, I think we can make a difference.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.