Nurse supervisor DeAnna North dresses in protective clothing before treating patients at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire’s Intensive Care Unit. Hospitals around Wisconsin are reaching capacity. An experimental drug could help that scenario.(Photo courtesy of Marshfield Clinic Health System)
Nurse supervisor DeAnna North dresses in protective clothing before treating patients at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire’s Intensive Care Unit. Hospitals around Wisconsin are reaching capacity. An experimental drug could help that scenario.(Photo courtesy of Marshfield Clinic Health System)

A lack of available staff to treat more patients is stretching existing staff, hospital administrators said. 

On the same day the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced one-day record numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths, hospital officials across the state said they’re scrambling to maintain enough healthy staff members to treat a fast-growing number of patients. 

The DHS reported 7,073 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and 66 more deaths, the most recent signs of the skyrocketing spread of the virus in Wisconsin. The previous one-day high number of cases was on Saturday, with 7,065 new infections. Sixty-four deaths were reported on Oct. 27.

The state has now reported 278,843 positive cases and 2,395 deaths from the virus. More than 1 of every 10 cases have occurred in just the last week.  

Those numbers are indicative of the rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 patients flooding Wisconsin hospitals. On Monday the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported a record 2,070 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized, with 418 requiring intensive care units. As of Tuesday, 128 ICU beds remain of 1,469 statewide, according to WHA statistics.   

Coronavirus cases have climbed significantly in recent days and are projected to continue to do so as the virus continues to spread, hospital administrators and public health officials said. 

Hours before addressing Wisconsin residents Tuesday evening about the continued surge of COVID-19, Gov. Tony Evers called yet again on state residents to wear masks in public, maintain social distancing, refrain from gatherings, and get tested for the virus if they exhibit symptoms.  

“The surges we see—the new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths—these are not foregone conclusions. These are predictable and preventable. That means the fight against this virus is winnable, but only if we fight it together,” Evers said in a copy of a speech distributed to the media.

At Mayo Clinic Health System hospitals in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the daily number of patients being treated for the coronavirus at Mayo locations in each state this summer and early fall typically numbered in the teens and 20s, said Dr. Amy Williams, dean of Mayo Clinic Practice, during a media briefing Tuesday from Rochester, Minnesota. 

However, as of midnight Tuesday that total at Mayo affiliates in northwest Wisconsin was 73, a figure that had risen to 82 just 12 hours later. 

“This is how rapidly we are seeing these numbers rising,” Williams said.  

It isn’t just the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths that are increasing. The positivity rate—the percentage of people tested who have positive results—is spiking, too. Last summer, health officials took notice when that number was more than 5%. When it got to 10% early this fall, they became more concerned. 

In recent weeks that figure has been more than 30% in Wisconsin, meaning the virus is much more prevalent across the state. Among the many more people contracting the virus or being exposed to it are nurses and other medical staff. That means they must be quarantined and are unavailable for work.

Mayo Clinic Health System-Eau Claire recently reduced its elective procedures because of a need to focus more resources on treating COVID-19 patients. (Photo courtesy of Mayo Clinic Health System)

Hospital administrators throughout the state report between 5% and 15% of their staff have been quarantined in recent weeks at the same time as patient load is growing significantly. A lack of available staff to treat more patients is stretching existing staff, hospital administrators said. 

Officials at hospitals in eastern and central Wisconsin said they experienced staffing shortages nearly a month ago amid repeated COVID-19 outbreaks. Available beds to treat patients infected with the virus also are in short supply, they said.  

As the virus has since surged in other parts of the state, hospitals from Milwaukee to La Crosse to Eau Claire to Ashland have reported concerns about having enough available staff and intensive care unit beds as patient numbers keep climbing. 

Hospitals in central and northwest Wisconsin told UpNorthNews staffing and beds are a concern now, and that situation likely will grow worse as COVID-19 numbers are projected to rise in coming weeks.  

Two weeks ago, Marshfield Clinic Health System reported 76 COVID-19 patients at its Wisconsin sites, a number that had jumped to 137 on Tuesday. With more staff forced to stay home because of COVID-19 exposure, Marshfield officials are forced to balance non-emergency care with caring for more patients infected with the virus, Marshfield Clinic spokesman Matthew Schneider said.   

“Our inpatient volumes have remained elevated and continue to increase,” Schneider said. “We remain very concerned for the health of the communities we serve.”

Mayo facilities in Eau Claire recently reduced non-emergency care because of the need to divert more resources toward treating COVID-19 patients. Mayo currently has enough staff for patient care, Williams said, but she worries that could change if coronavirus cases keep surging. The vast majority of COVID-18 infections of Mayo staff occur not at the hospital but in the community, she said. 

“My biggest concern is staffing,” Williams said. “What worries me is our staff will get ill in the community, and then we do run out of individuals who are available to care for our patients.”