ICU beds fill up as officials watch for coronavirus omicron variant

By: - December 1, 2021 5:39 am
Image captured and colorized at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Image captured and colorized at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

With the continued resurgence of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, still driven by the delta variant of the virus, hospital intensive care units are full in the state’s western and northwestern regions, the Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) reported Tuesday.

“We are in the middle of a delta wave with record cases and record hospitalizations in Wisconsin for all of 2021,” said Dr. Ben Weston of the Medical College of Wisconsin. “In fact, the entire western region of our state has zero ICU beds available. Zero.”

Statewide, 97% of hospital ICU beds are full, according to WHA.

Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, spoke in a briefing Tuesday conducted by Milwaukee city and county officials.

“This is a dangerous place,” he said of the state’s current COVID-19 numbers, “for our state, as well as our country, are entering a long winter holiday season with poor trends and a new variant on the rise.”

Wisconsin has the fourth-worst rate of positive COVID-19 tests of any U.S. state, Weston said. According to data posted Tuesday by the state Department of Health Services (DHS), 11.7% of Wisconsin COVID-19 tests per day have been positive, on average, over the last seven days. In the same period the state has logged an average of 2,722 new cases a day.

In Milwaukee County, the highest rate for positive tests has been among children 10 to 14 years old, Weston said, with children 5 to 9 years old closely following. School outbreaks requiring quarantine and isolation have been reported throughout the community, he added.

“We need to see more kids get vaccinated,” Weston said. About 10-15% of children in the county ages 5 to 11 have gotten the shot so far, he added.

The Milwaukee Health Department issued a new mask advisory Tuesday for the city, rather than a mandate. With the advisory, the department is “strongly recommending … that people mask when indoors in public,” said the city’s health commissioner, Kirsten Johnson.

She said a mask order would only apply in the city and not to the surrounding county. “I think that’s a barrier to having an effective policy in place,” Johnson added. But she left the door open to a future order if cases spike sharply or health officials learn more about the newly identified omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The emergence of omicron has left “more questions than answers,” Johnson said, with health officials waiting to see how quickly it spreads and whether it can resist the current batch of COVID-19 vaccines.

While it hasn’t yet been reported in the U.S., Weston said it would likely show up “in the next day or two” and that it has already become the dominant form of the virus in countries where it has spread rapidly.

“Our vaccines have been effective against every variant we’ve seen so far,” Weston said, “and will likely have a pretty good level of protection against this one as well. So getting vaccinated, and getting boosted is the best way to prepare and to protect yourselves and your families.”

People 18 or older are eligible for a third booster shot six months after their second shot of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and those who have received a single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine qualify for a booster two months after their vaccination.

“Let’s be real — we’re all tired of this, everybody’s tired of this,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. “We would like to go back totally to pre COVID where we can ignore all of this. But we have to continue to be mindful that our hospitalizations and our deaths are obviously going in the wrong direction.”


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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.