The situation mirror’s the state’s worst COVID spike on record, which happened last November.
As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to grow across Wisconsin, medical experts and other health officials are expressing concern the state could return to caseloads similar to last winter, when hospitals were overrun and the number of deaths related to the virus surged.
The 7-day average number of new daily COVID-19 cases has risen significantly over the past couple of weeks and is now above 2,900, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). Currently, 1,180 patients—the vast majority of them unvaccinated—are hospitalized statewide because of the virus, per figures from the Wisconsin Hospital Association.
About 91% of hospital beds are in use, with some hospitals reporting being at capacity. Since late October, hospitalizations have increased by 21% in northwest Wisconsin, 15% in the state’s north-central area, and 11% in the southeast.
“With so many hospitals and healthcare workers already overburdened caring for COVID-19 patients, it becomes increasingly more difficult to treat patients who come in for all the other reasons that people need hospitals and other healthcare settings,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, DHS’ chief medical officer with the Bureau of Communicable Diseases. He added that the data is looking similar to last fall’s COVID surge, which saw daily new cases reach nearly 8,000 on several days.
As of early Thursday afternoon, none of the 72 intensive care (ICU) beds used to treat the most critically ill patients were available at hospitals in the northwest part of the state. In the north-central region, just 2 of 125 of those beds were available, and 6 of 207 in the northeast. Statewide, that figure is 55 of 1,353 beds available.
Hospitals reconfigure some existing bed space to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients, but the lack of available ICU beds is a troubling sign, health officials said.
“Hospitals are full in our region for sure,” Chippewa County Health Department Director Angela Weideman said, noting that the situation is “a significant concern.”
While deaths due to COVID-19 have not yet seen the same surge, according to state data, experts have cautioned that deaths tend to lag behind hospitalizations. Since March 2020, the disease has killed at least 8,812 people in Wisconsin. The state has averaged 14 deaths due to the disease over the last week in a coronavirus pandemic that has now killed 767,515 Americans, according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.
Last winter, even with the wearing of face masks more commonplace and public gathering restrictions in place, COVID-19 cases spiked, Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist Dr. Abninash Virk said during a Wednesday media call. A similar surge is occurring now, he said, even though more than half of people (55.1% of Wisconsin residents) have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
“We’re in a very similar position this year in terms of the number of cases,” Virk said.
The number of new COVID-19 cases has grown substantially the past few weeks in St. Croix County, where the 7-day average is now 101 new positive tests. That number is prompting not only concerns about regional hospitals being at or near capacity, but is pushing schools to go from in-person to online instruction for a time to curb virus spread.
“Some schools have made decisions to go virtual over Thanksgiving,” St. Croix County Health Officer Kelli Engen said.
Menomonie School District Superintendent Joe Zydowski recently announced that district will cancel classes on Nov. 22-23 because a COVID-19 outbreak is keeping many students and staff home from school. Some other school districts around the state are taking similar action to try to slow virus transmission.
Westergaard addressed outbreaks at schools more generally, saying that DHS is concerned about the potential for spread of the virus at schools after the Thanksgiving holiday. Wisconsin saw similar spikes in caseloads in the weeks after the 2020 holiday season.
“We believe that’s true,” Westergaard said when asked if schools with mask mandates in place were faring better than those without, citing studies conducted in other states. “And our recommendation remains during this school year, for schools to have all students and staff wear masks while indoors.”