UW Health issued an open letter Sunday pleading with the state’s residents to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed and the number of deaths from soaring.
“Wisconsin is in a bad place right now with no sign of things getting better without action,” the open letter states. “We are, quite simply, out of time. Without immediate change, our hospitals will be too full to treat all of those with the virus and those with other illnesses or injuries.”
The letter was released on the first day since Oct. 17 that no new deaths from the disease were reported.
But it also was released days after the Wisconsin Hospital Association warned in a letter to Gov. Tony Evers and legislative leaders that the crisis was on track to become a catastrophe.
And a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that Wisconsin could reach 4,000 deaths in early December and 5,000 deaths before Christmas.
To put that in perspective, 1,000 people had died from COVID-19 as of Aug. 11, roughly five months after the start of the pandemic. By Halloween, an additional 1,000 people had died.
As of Saturday, 3,005 people had died from COVID-19.
Last week was the deadliest since the beginning of the pandemic.
Patrick Remington, a former epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s preventive medicine residency program, said last week he is “absolutely certain” that the state will exceed 5,000 deaths by the end of the year.
On Sunday, state health officials reported 3,507 new COVID-19 cases Sunday and no additional deaths.
The seven-day average of new cases was 6,043, according to the state Department of Health Services. That’s down from an average of 6,422 a day in the previous week.
Still, a total of 42,301 people in the state were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past week.
By one estimate, 3.5% of those diagnosed — or an estimated 1,480 people — will need to be hospitalized. More than 300 of them could die.
“Anybody who says this is not a big deal is not looking at the numbers,” Remington said last week. “As of today, more people have died in the state of Wisconsin from COVID-19 than die in a year from stroke, diabetes, suicide, homicide, car crashes, Alzheimer’s, bronchitis, emphysema, influenza, pneumonia and on.”
Hospitals throughout the state are at or near capacity and facing severe staffing shortages because of employees who have become infected from the virus or must quarantine because they have been exposed to someone who has.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association noted that the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients was double what it was four weeks ago and six-times what it was eight weeks ago.
Many health systems already have taken steps to limit the number of elective procedures and surgeries because of severe staffing shortages and the limited number of available beds.
The virus also now is widespread throughout the state.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has roughly tripled since Sept. 19.
Further, people can be infected and contagious before they show symptoms. And as many as 40% of the people infected may never show symptoms but can infect others.
The immediate concern is that gatherings of families and friends over the holidays could add to the recent surge, potentially overwhelming hospitals now at or near capacity.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended people avoid traveling for Thanksgiving and only celebrate with the people who live in their household.
“Thanksgiving dinners have the potential to be super-spreader events,” Robert Citronberg, a physician and executive medical director of Infectious Disease and Prevention at Advocate Aurora Health, said last week.
Despite the severity of the crisis, many people continue to believe that the risks of COVID-19 are overstated, contending that disease is no different from the flu, and that the number of deaths is inflated.
The drop in the seven-day average of confirmed cases suggests that this may be lessening.
But in its open letter, UW Health said, “Outside our hospitals, we still see big gatherings with no masks. We hear about Thanksgiving dinner plans that will send even more people to our already very full COVID-19 units — units full of patients who might not survive a fight with this virus.”
UW Health noted that people have heard the recommendations — such as avoiding gatherings, wearing a mask and frequently washing hands — “a thousand times.”
“But if the thousand and first time makes an impact it’s all worth it,” the letter said. “If you stop the spread to one person, it’s worth it.”
Natalie Brophy of USA-Today Network Wisconsin contributed to this report.