Wisconsin reports yet another daily COVID-19 case record as ICU beds drop to dangerously low levels

Kasandra Anderson, right, a registered nurse, watches as a man administers a self-test as part of the rapid-result COVID-19 testing at the UW-Milwaukee Student Union on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. University of Wisconsin campuses are offering free "surge testing sites" that provide rapid-result COVID-19 tests to off-campus community members, with the aim of alleviating the high demand for testing across the state.

Wisconsin reported yet another record daily coronavirus case count as intensive care unit beds dwindled to dangerously low levels.

The state Department of Health Services on Wednesday reported a record 7,989 new cases and 52 deaths, bringing the death toll to 2,793.

And the state reported just four ICU beds available in the Fox Valley, an eight-county area defined by the Healthcare Emergency Readiness Coalition. Zero intermediate care beds were available in the region.

In the north central region, just six ICU beds were available. Statewide, about 9% of ICU beds remained open.

Gov. Tony Evers in a news conference Wednesday said he will issue a new public health emergency and will extend the state’s indoor face mask mandate into 2021 in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

The effectiveness of the mask mandate will increase if more people wear masks, said Andrea Palm, DHS secretary-designee.

Beyond mask-wearing, residents need to stay home and not interact with people outside their households, said Ryan Westergaard, DHS chief medical officer.

“It needs to be complete, absolute, everyone, statewide — stay home,” he said. “We’re at a really, really difficult spot.”

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The outbreak reaches all corners of the state: All but one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties reported a “critically high” disease activity level in a weekly update Wednesday.

The disease activity measure looks at cases in a county per 100,000 people as well as the trajectory of the virus in the county over the last two weeks.

To meet the top level, “critically high,” counties must report a rate of at least 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.

Green County, with a rate of 938.6, is the only county in the state at “very high” disease activity.

The first counties to crack a case rate of 3,000 are Barron, Jackson and Menominee.

Hospital staff face critical shortages, emotionally draining work

Hospitals across the state are facing declining bed space and widespread staffing shortages as hundreds of health care workers exposed or infected in the community are forced to quarantine at home.

One-third of hospitals in the state are experiencing critical staffing shortages, and another 41% expect a critical shortage within a week, Palm said.

“A strained hospital system puts everyone at risk, whether or not you have COVID-19,” she said.

Every region in the state has multiple hospitals that have activated their surge plans, Palm said, and nearly 90% of hospital beds statewide are full, according to state data.

But even if a hospital can find space for more beds, the lack of staff is crippling.

“Some have surge spaces and beds set aside, but they are going unused because there is no one available to staff them,” she said.

Aspirus hospital system, based in Wausau, has 300 employees out who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms and are waiting to be tested.

To help treat the influx of patients, Aspirus has hired extra contract staff and visiting nurses.

Palm said the state has worked to loosen licensing restrictions and bring in nurses from other states, but she expects health care workers to be in high demand as outbreaks worsen across the country and the winter nears.

She compared the coming “competition” for health care workers to states’ scramble for scarce personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic.

“What that really speaks to is the work we have to do to avoid getting to that place,” Palm said.

The last several months have been taxing and emotionally draining for health care workers at Aspirus Wausau Hospital as they talk through complex medical choices and tell families that their loved ones are dying over the phone, said Stephen Phillipson, director of medicine at the hospital.

“My team is seeing volumes of people dying that they haven’t had to deal with before,” he said.

“For my younger physicians and younger staff who are nurses and frontline staff, this may be one of the defining moments of their career,” he said. “It’s very hard for my young physicians to lose five or six patients in 24 or 36 hours. They’re not used to that, so it’s basically talking it through and getting up and doing it again the next day.”

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The field hospital at State Fair Park was caring for 22 people Wednesday and has treated more than 70 people since it opened mid-October, Palm said.

Health officials last week said they were looking at expanding the types of patients admitted to the alternate care facility to more effectively relieve pressure on strained hospitals. It was originally intended to serve COVID-19 patients who need a lower level of care at the end of their hospital stays.

Most important, though, is reducing the number of coronavirus patients needing any kind of care, Palm said.

“We would prefer that no patients need to be transferred to the alternate care facility, but that our hospitals have the capacity and the staffing that they need to serve folks in their communities,” Palm said.

“That’s the way this is supposed to work, and we need to get back to a place where that is how it is working,” she said.

Explosive case growth seen over last month

The average number of new daily cases over the last seven days reached a new high Wednesday of 6,564.

Cases have been surging for more than two and a half months in Wisconsin, but the last month has seen especially explosive, rapid case growth.

One month ago, an average of 2,839 cases were reported per day.

And Wednesday’s seven-day average is nine times what it was Sept. 1.

The average daily death toll over the last seven days was 48; two months ago, just before the surge in deaths began in Wisconsin, it was six.

And as of Wednesday, there were 2,217 people hospitalized with the virus, including 428 patients in intensive care units. Both numbers were slight declines from the day prior. Still, total coronavirus hospitalizations are up more than six-fold in the last two months.

The average positivity rate was 34.7% Wednesday. The measure looks at first-time positive tests over the last seven days.

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