A healthcare worker assists a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
A healthcare worker assists a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Available hospital beds are dwindling as COVID cases continue to spike in places like Barron and Wood counties.

As a new school year with in-person instruction has begun and with the contagious Delta variant present, new cases of COVID-19 are surging in many parts of Wisconsin, especially the state’s northwest and north-central regions. 

Data from the state Department of Health Services (DHS) shows 181 new cases of the virus have been reported during the past week in Barron County, or 379 positive tests per 100,000 people, the highest rate of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

Increased cases in the county are coming from a variety of sources, with outbreaks occurring at worksites, schools, long-term care facilities, a church, and at a wedding, said Laura Sauve, the county’s health officer. Virus spread is also happening in people’s homes, she said. 

“Once any member of a household has COVID, it spreads very quickly to other members of the home,” Sauve said.

Barron County isn’t alone among parts of the state experiencing a significant uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases. All of Wisconsin’s 72 counties are currently designated as having “high” or “very high” levels of the virus, based on reported cases during the past two weeks.

After Barron County, other counties with the highest case rates during the past week, in order, are: Forest, 367; Trempealeau, 363; Taylor, 363; Chippewa, 343; and Wood, 324.

The rate per 100,000 in the state’s most populous county, Milwaukee County, is 220. In Dane County, that figure is 143 and is 188 in Brown County.    

DHS reported 2,064 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, up significantly from 782 on Monday and 933 Sunday. The rising number of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks across Wisconsin is impacting the healthcare providers. On Tuesday, 1,045 people were being treated for COVID-19 in the state’s hospitals, the first time that figure had topped 1,000 since January. 

That total was up 111 from one week earlier, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) data. Of those patients, 315 were in intensive care beds, up 40 more than a week ago.

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On Wednesday, those figures dipped slightly, to 1,039 COVID-19 patients hospitalized and 313 in intensive care. 

”We are concerned about the lack of beds available,” Chippewa County Public Health Director Angela Weideman told UpNorthNews during a recent interview.

Barron County hospitals report being able to manage the current COVID-19 caseload, Sauve said, when people aren’t especially ill with the virus. However, those hospitals are having difficulty finding available intensive care beds, she said, as well as finding transportation to get those who are severely sick to other hospitals.  

Intensive care beds, used to treat more serious COVID-19 cases, are in short supply in Barron County and other parts of the state. In the northwest region, only 1 of 72 ICU beds is immediately available, according to WHA figures. That number is just 3 of 125 beds in the north-central part of Wisconsin. Statewide, 86 of 1,359 ICU beds were available as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Hospitals can increase the number of ICU beds as part of their COVID-19 surge plans, health officials said. But a dwindling number of available ICU beds can be a troubling indicator of a lack of resources to treat seriously ill patients, they said.  

County health officers in northern and western Wisconsin report a growing number of positive cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations as the Delta variant continues to spread and as a new school year has begun. From Sept. 1-6 in St. Croix County, 31 people ages 10-19 tested positive for COVID-19, county Public Health Administrator Kelli Engen said. The daily average of people testing positive for the virus during the past week is 26, significantly higher than earlier this summer. 

“We’re seeing our numbers go up,” Engen said, “and more of those testing positive are children.” 

The number of COVID-19 cases is projected to increase in upcoming weeks. Sauve worries that will be the case, especially as people tire of wearing masks and taking other precautions, such as social distancing and frequent hand washing, intended to limit virus transmission. 

“People need to remember that COVID is still spreading in our communities and, even though we all want to go back to ‘normal,’ we just can’t let our guard down now,” Sauve said.