State breaks new COVID record, announces health care help

By: - January 7, 2022 6:47 am
COVID-19 Vaccination Site | Photo by U.S. Government Accountability Office, U.S. government works

COVID-19 Vaccination site (Photo | U.S. Government Accountability Office)

For the second day in a row, Wisconsin reported a record number of new COVID-19 cases, with 11,574 added to the state’s rolls on Thursday. That follows a previous record, 10,288 new cases that were reported on Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health Services (DHS)

The new surge is driven by the fast-spreading and much more contagious omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus responsible for the pandemic that began nearly two years ago.

“The omicron variant is spreading rapidly through our communities, and we are beginning to experience the effects,” said Traci DiSalvo, director of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at DHS. Wisconsin hospitals have reported 97% of intensive care unit beds are in use and 98% of intermediate care beds, DiSalvo told reporters at an afternoon media briefing.

To alleviate pressure on hospital staff, DHS announced Thursday that it has so far placed 567 health care workers from staffing agencies in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities since Oct. 19. The positions are funded by money from the American Rescue Plan Act, federal pandemic relief legislation enacted in March 2021.

Hospitals have increasingly had to rely on outside agency staff to fill gaps in staffing, and the positions that DHS has filled are just some of the overall use of outside agency health care workers, said Kelly Lietz of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. For the positions that DHS is reporting, the federal funds pay about 60% and the health care facility covers the rest.

Hospitals are filling up despite the fact that large numbers of people who have tested positive for the virus have relatively mild symptoms, according to Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS Bureau of Infectious Diseases.

“Overall, the number of people requiring hospitalization with COVID still is very high right now — higher than it’s ever been,” Westergaard added. “Even if [the virus] is a little milder, there’s going to be a subset [of patients] who get severely ill.”

The people who do need hospital care continue to be those who have not gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, he said. At the same time, he added, omicron has demonstrated the importance of booster shots, which have been found to provide almost three times the protection of just the two-dose series of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

DiSalvo said DHS is urging people who want to get tested for COVID-19 to avoid going to a hospital emergency room if they are not feeling sick. In addition to  local health providers, health departments or community testing sites, people seeking at-home tests can purchase them or obtain a free test provided by DHS in a partnership with Vault Medical Services, she said.

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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.