Clinicians depart a patient room after re-positioning a COVID-19 patient. (Mario Tama | Getty Images)
The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 reached a new peak in Dane County, officials said Tuesday, while in Wisconsin as a whole, it reached a number just short of the record set 14 months ago.
The number of people in Dane County hospitals with COVID-19 was at an all-time high of 184 on Monday, “and today, that number is even higher at 197,” said Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC), at a Tuesday news conference.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) listed 2,244 hospital patients in the state with COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon. That is less than three dozen fewer than the record for the state of 2,277, recorded on Nov. 17, 2020.
The total number of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin has reached at least 1,088,550 according to the state Department of Health Services (DHS). Deaths now stand at 10,382.
At a Milwaukee County briefing, Dr. Ben Weston of the Medical College of Wisconsin and the county’s chief medical advisor, said that the surge in driven by the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is likely to last a few more weeks. That’s based on the pattern seen in South Africa, so far the first country to show a definitive slowdown in cases from the variant, Weston said.
To help turn around the spread, “those few weeks will be critical,” Weston said. Physical distancing, adequate ventilation and the use of high quality masks around other people “will help us flatten that curve and maintain our health system capacity.
That capacity is already “deeply strained,” Weston added, with surgeries and procedures postponed and clinics closed so the available staff can cover for hospital workers who are out sick. In some hospitals patients who need to be admitted have had to be held in the emergency department because of staff shortages.
Weston said that there are reasons for hope that 2022 won’t simply repeat 2021: an improved understanding of the virus; the number of people who are vaccinated, which, while not enough, is well above the 1% who were vaccinated a year ago; changes in Milwaukee County that he said have helped increase the vaccination rates for particularly vulnerable communities, and upcoming medications to treat COVID-19.
By encouraging vaccination, he said, “we can work together to protect not just ourselves, but our community.”
The omicron variant has been found to be extraordinarily contagious, while at the same time it appears to have a generally more mild impact. But Weston said that even though it might produce less severe disease in many people, that is not cause for easing up on public health prevention.
For individuals, it may be milder, but mild symptoms “can still be pretty uncomfortable,” Weston said. “I see these patients every day in the emergency department. And if you’re unvaccinated, you’re getting COVID. Quite often that means days or weeks of body aches and fevers of headaches of cough, shortness of breath. It’s more mild than being hospitalized, certainly. But mild disease with COVID is not a mild cold.”
And for some people even a supposedly mild case still risks long-term effects, some of which “can be debilitating,” he added.
There is also the community impact, said Weston.
“You have to think of others — you have to think of the people that you may transmit to, or, by letting it just go wild, who else it is going to be transmitted to,” he said. Those include children who aren’t yet vaccinated, people who might have a medical condition that prevents them from being vaccinated or that makes the vaccine less effective, and others who could still get extremely sick from COVID-19, “even if they’re vaccinated, even if they’re boosted — they’re still vulnerable populations, so we have to think of them.”
However mild it might be for some, there are still people who will need to go to the hospital, some who will need intensive care, some who might need a ventilator. “And if we just let omicron go wild, and we don’t try to contain it, we don’t flatten that curve — we’re going to overwhelm our health systems,” Weston said. “And it turns out the people that need health systems are everyone.”
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