MADISON – Wisconsin is approaching a point where its hospitals may not be able to save everyone who needs saving as the coronavirus continues to surge and overwhelm the state’s health care system, health officials warned on Wednesday.
“We’re very close to a tipping point,” Ryan Westergaard, state Department of Health Services chief medical officer, said during an event hosted by Wisconsin Health News. “This could get much worse quickly and that tipping point is when we stop being able to save everyone who gets severely ill.”
Fatality rates for people who become ill with COVID-19 are remaining relatively low, Westergaard said, but the coronavirus patients who require hospitalization are growing at a pace that may soon affect the health care system’s ability to treat everyone else. If that happens, people will die unnecessarily, he said.
“A lot of people in the population don’t perceive themselves to be at high risk of severe COVID-19, but we are truly all at risk if we have hospitals and health systems that aren’t able to be there for us when we need them,” he said.
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More than 7,000 people in Wisconsin tested positive again on Wednesday — the third time in the last five days — and 62 more people died. Hospitalizations are at a record high, too, with just 8% of the total number of ICU beds in the state available.
Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said staffing is strained at hospitals all over the state.
“Not only are we seeing demand, COVID-related demand, just almost going up at a vertical pace, truly, but it’s coming at a time when our capacity to treat that demand is becoming more and more diminished,” he said.
Hospitals in the Mayo Clinic Health System in northwestern Wisconsin have no more available beds, system officials said Tuesday.
ProHealth Care’s hospitals in Waukesha and Oconomowoc are at capacity and have been for the past two to three weeks. To cope, the health system has taken steps to limit inpatient elective procedures but so far they have not had to turn people away.
In Fond du Lac, St. Agnes Hospital is delaying elective surgeries.
“Daily, sometimes even within the hour, we are monitoring our patient volumes and working one-on-one with our providers to evaluate elective procedures that will require an overnight stay,” Katherine Vergos, president of St. Agnes Hospital, said.
‘Inconsistent messaging from leaders’
In a pair of briefings held Wednesday on the state’s health care system, officials said the state could avoid this dire scenario if behavior changes but that there isn’t a unified public messaging campaign from those with the bully pulpits: Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders.
“Inconsistent messaging from leaders across the spectrum has really been a major root cause for why we are doing poorly,” Mark Kaufman, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said in a briefing to the Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce business lobbying group.
Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said the mixed messages coming from the state Capitol aren’t helpful in tackling the pandemic’s effects in a comprehensive way.
“I’m just a bit perplexed at the kind of lack of common guidance on an issue that is broad and statewide, but I’m equally perplexed by how people are reacting to this,” he said.
Since the pandemic hit Wisconsin, the messages to the public from Evers and GOP leaders have been separate and at odds with each other.
Evers issued a stay-at-home order that was successfully challenged by the GOP lawmakers in May. Every measure Evers has sought since then has been challenged in court by conservatives.
Evers has promoted restrictive behavior to reduce public interaction, including in a prime-time speech on Tuesday. GOP lawmakers have largely been silent and as of a month ago some were telling constituents not to worry about the virus.
On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel issued a news release saying Evers’ speech urging people to stay home amounted to “fear mongering.”
While the issue of COVID-19 has been cloaked with this partisan division for months, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos on Tuesday signaled that could change by saying lawmakers and Evers should work together.
Both said they are working on new legislation to tackle the issues stemming from the pandemic, but neither provided details to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week.
Kirsten Johnson, director of the Washington Ozaukee County Public Health Department, said Wednesday during the Wisconsin Health News event that the surge in cases has made contact tracing nearly impossible.
She said local health workers are unable to contact everyone who tests positive within 24 hours, and the department has abandoned the task of contacting close contacts to positive cases.
“At this point we are overwhelmed and I would say the majority of health departments are overwhelmed,” she said. The department is seeing 400 new cases per day and has capacity to trace 200 cases, Johnson said.
Johnson and the Milwaukee Health Department both said on Wednesday that the departments are asking those who test positive for COVID-19 to do their own contact tracing by reaching out to people they had close contact with to alert them to exposure.
“We can’t get our arms around this,” Johnson said. “I am fearful for our heath care systems and what this is going to look like in the coming months if people don’t start staying home, really.”
Guy Boulton and Alison Dirr of the Journal Sentinel staff and Sharon Roznik of the Fond du Lac Reporter contributed to this report.
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