Drop in Patient Numbers in Wisconsin May Only Be the Eye of a Hurricane

(Photo courtesy of Marshfield Clinic Health System-Eau Claire)



By Julian Emerson

December 3, 2020

Many facilities still at or near capacity, and a post-Thanksgiving surge could be disastrous as Christmas approaches.

Hospitals across much of Wisconsin report a slight reprieve from coronavirus cases that have overwhelmed them in recent weeks, but medical providers in the northwest part of the state remain near or at capacity, forcing some patients to travel significant distances and even to other states for treatment.

In some cases, officials said, patients have been turned down by multiple hospitals before finding one with space and staffing to accept them. St. Croix County Medical Examiner Patty Schachtner said she knows of patients who were sent from her county to La Crosse for care because regional hospitals were too full to accept them. In one case, she said, a COVID-19 patient was sent all the way to North Dakota for care. 

“The hospitals in this area have been overwhelmed,” Schachtner said, noting the situation was made worse because many nurses and other medical staff had to be quarantined after exposure to COVID-19 at the same time more personnel were needed. “Some people with COVID are having to go elsewhere for care.”

Wisconsin Hospital Association figures show 1,780 patients hospitalized statewide because of the virus as of Wednesday. Total COVID-19 patient numbers have fallen in 10 of the past 15 days since reaching 2,277 on Nov. 17.

Reported coronavirus cases statewide have dipped in recent days too. On Wednesday the state Department of Health Services reported 3,777 new cases, along with 82 deaths. In Wisconsin, 395,090 people have tested positive for the virus and 3,502 have died. Equally troubling, the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases as a share of total tests processed daily has been above 30% for more than 30 days. Health experts say a positivity rate of about 5% shows a level of success in preventing widespread community transmission of the virus.

Hospital administrators said they’re grateful for that downward trend statewide. But in the northwest part of the state, hospitals continue to treat significant numbers of COVID-19 patients, they said.

Hospital officials said space and staffing shortages have forced COVID-19 patients to seek treatment outside of the communities where they live. Dr. Amy Williams, executive dean of practice for Mayo Clinic, said their flagship facility in Rochester, Minnesota has received patients from Wisconsin, Iowa and elsewhere.

While COVID-19 cases have dropped in recent days and patient numbers “seem to be in a steady state” after rising significantly during the past month, Mayo’s hospitals in northwest Wisconsin remain at or near patient capacity, Williams said. In some instances, she said, COVID-19 patients who might normally have been hospitalized have been able to receive treatment at home, freeing up hospital beds for those most seriously ill with the virus.     

“In Wisconsin, our hospitals are absolutely stretched,” she said, noting nurses and other medical staff are working extra hours and shifts to provide patient care.

As a sign of overcrowding at hospitals, state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said hospitals are working closely with long-term care facilities to free up hospital beds while ensuring patient safety. At times, she said during a Nov. 24 news conference, patient discharges have been delayed because of COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes and other sites where patients live. 

Drop in Patient Numbers in Wisconsin May Only Be the Eye of a Hurricane
An unidentified nurse at Marshfield Clinic Health System’s Eau Claire hospital enters a negative pressure room that was created in what was an ambulatory surgery area, an effort to treat an influx of COVID-19 patients at the hospital. (Photo courtesy of Marshfield Clinic Health System-Eau Claire)

To address the situation, on Nov. 20 Gov. Tony Evers announced the state is spending $131 million to expand capacity in Wisconsin hospitals and skilled nursing facilities and address healthcare workers shortages related to the influx of COVID-19 patients.  

In Eau Claire, where hospital overcrowding because of the coronavirus has received national news coverage recently, hospitals report patient numbers down slightly from the past couple of weeks. But officials at those hospitals in the community where 58 people have died from COVID-19 and nearly 8,000 have contracted the virus said they are still near capacity. 

Marshfield Clinic Health System’s 44-bed Eau Claire hospital was 95% full Wednesday, down from a high of 120% recently, when existing spaces were converted to treat patients amid a flood of those needing treatment for COVID-19. 

While the dip feels like a slight reprieve, hospital officials are preparing for another predicted surge of COVID-19 patients in the wake of Thanksgiving holiday gatherings, said Bill Priest, chief administrative officer for Marshfield Clinic Health System-Eau Claire. 

“We are still very full,” he said Wednesday. “We would like to see that number keep coming down. But we’re planning for another bump up. Our community is far from being out of the woods, and we are prepared for a post-Thanksgiving surge if it comes.”

Officials at Mayo Clinic Health System-Eau Claire and HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls also report being at or near capacity. On Tuesday Mayo reported 85 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at its five northwest Wisconsin sites, with 10 requiring intensive care treatment.

“We have seen a slight decrease in COVID-19 patients in our hospitals in northwest Wisconsin, but the number is still quite high,” said Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president of Mayo’s northwest Wisconsin region. “This is no time to let down our guard.”  

Instead, hospital officials with Mayo, Marshfield and elsewhere are preparing for a projected surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the wake of Thanksgiving holiday gatherings. If such a rise occurs, hospitals in northwest Wisconsin and elsewhere in the state will be hard-pressed to care for a larger patient load, public health officials said.  

While COVID-19 numbers have plateaued in recent days, Schachtner worries about predictions of another spike in COVID-19 cases. If that happens when hospitals are already full of patients and short staffed, “I don’t know how we’re going to handle this,” she said. 

Drop in Patient Numbers in Wisconsin May Only Be the Eye of a Hurricane
St. Croix County medical examiner Patty Schachtner said her office and other frontline medical personnel have been stretched thin as the number of COVID-19-related cases and deaths has surged in recent weeks. (Photo courtesy of Patty Schachtner)

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, Schachnter said she is also concerned about its impact on medical personnel, especially those on the frontlines providing patient care. Nurses and others are repeatedly working extra-long shifts amid extremely challenging conditions. Some are beginning to walk off the job. 

“These people are doing heroic work, but you can only take so much,” Schachtner said. “There are people developing PTSD. There are going to be long-term mental health ramifications from this.”   

She knows firsthand the impact of COVID-19 on loved ones. Days after the state senator from the 10th District lost her race for re-election, her father, Richard Rivard, passed away from COVID-19. Four members of her extended family also have tested positive for the virus. 

“It’s awful to lose someone to this illness, just awful,” Schachtner said. “My dad had Alzheimer’s. But he didn’t die from that. He died from COVID-19. We lost him earlier than we would have, and that hurts.”




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