MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin’s hospitals are facing another tough COVID-19 winter.
What You Need To Know
- The latest surge has sent hospitalizations 50% higher than their previous 2021 peaks
- Unvaccinated people are more likely to be sent to the hospital, and delta is making them very sick, officials say
- Only around 4% of all ICU beds are available, and the state has requested federal help to fill staffing gaps
- The return of the flu and the rise of omicron add extra concerns
The surge that was spurred on by the delta variant’s arrival has kept on surging — and Wisconsin has been barreling into the end of 2021 with record-setting hospitalization rates that are stretching its health care system thin.
“Without a doubt our hospitals are filling up,” Ben Weston, chief health policy advisor for Milwaukee County, said at a briefing this week. “Our hospitals are full.”
Here, we break down what you need to know about COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Badger State right now.
Hospitalizations are at their highest point this year — by a long shot
As of Monday’s data, the Wisconsin Hospital Association was reporting 1,714 coronavirus patients in hospitals across the state.
That’s the highest total Wisconsin has seen in over a year. Our current hospitalizations are around 50% higher than previous 2021 peaks — at the start of the year when we were coming off our last winter surge, and earlier in the fall as our delta surge was building.
Intensive care patients are seeing similar spikes. Monday’s total of 443 COVID-19 patients in the ICU marks more than a 30% jump from previous highs.
It’s been a sharp turnaround since the summer, when we saw hospitalization rates at their lowest points of the pandemic. But since delta took over as the main form of the virus, those rates have pretty much kept climbing — aside from a dip in October — and are now more than 20 times higher than they were over the summer.
Wisconsin still hasn’t surpassed its worst-ever hospital numbers from last winter’s surge. But the current spike isn’t showing any signs of subsiding just yet.
“Our trends continue in the wrong direction,” Weston said.
Why are hospitals filling up?
This week, Wisconsin marked the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccines going into arms.
The shots — which studies found to be safe and even more effective than scientists had hoped — seemed like they’d be a “silver bullet” out of the pandemic, Weston said at a briefing. So why are hospitals filling up again a year later?
For one, not enough people have gotten those vaccines, even as they’ve become widely available, health officials said.
In Wisconsin, a little over 60% of the population has gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to DHS data. That rate has stalled out well below the 80% “herd immunity” goal originally set by the DHS — and the fact we’re still seeing high spread means we haven’t reached enough people for community protection, state epidemiologist Ryan Westergaard said at a briefing.
Most of the current COVID-19 patients showing up in the hospital are not vaccinated, Ashok Rai, president and CEO of Prevea Health, said at a DHS briefing this month. In November, people who had not gotten all their shots were 11 times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times more likely to die of COVID-19, the DHS reports.
“It’s very frustrating when you know you have a stroke patient and you can’t take care of them the way you’d want to, because of a COVID patient that is basically preventable,” Rai said.
The delta variant has also changed the game for hospitals fighting the pandemic, experts said.
With delta — which makes up almost 100% of all coronavirus cases in Wisconsin, per state tracking data — we’ve seen patients stay in hospitals longer and require more resources, DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said at a briefing.
In December, the state set an all-time record for COVID-19 patients who were on ventilators — a treatment that’s reserved as a last resort after other options, like therapeutics, Rai said at the briefing.
“The delta variant has definitely created a sicker patient for us,” Rai said.
Hospitalized patients these days also tend to be younger than in past surges, likely because older age groups are vaccinated at higher rates, Timberlake said.
Health care workers are struggling to keep up
Across the state, around 93% of all hospital beds and 96% of ICU beds were in use as of Wednesday, per DHS data. The Fox Valley region was stretched especially thin, with around 98% of all hospital beds and 99.5% of ICU beds in use.
Most hospitals in the state have already reached their overall peak capacity, the DHS reports — and almost 80% have ICUs at peak capacity.
It’s not just about space: “This is fundamentally a staffing challenge,” Timberlake said at a briefing.
COVID-19 patients are especially labor-intensive, Rai explained, requiring a lot of time and energy in their care. And the latest surge comes after providers have been on the front lines of the pandemic for almost two years — leaving many nurses, doctors and other health care workers exhausted.
“This has been a long battle for those of us in health care,” Rai said.
Wisconsin has requested FEMA workers to help cover staffing shortages in the state, Gov. Tony Evers announced this month. The health department has also contracted hundreds of nurses and CNAs to help staff hospitals, and is training some National Guard members to work in state facilities, Timberlake added.
But for now, the state’s health system is near its limits while heading into winter — which Rai said is usually the busiest time of year for health care.
More than one-third of all hospital beds in the state are filled up by COVID-19 patients, Weston said this week. That doesn’t leave much “wiggle room” for other types of emergencies, he said.
“You don’t want to be the person that needs an ICU bed when there’s zero ICU beds available,” Weston said.
Flu and omicron raise future concerns
With Wisconsin’s health system in its current state, a couple of looming threats are raising concerns for the road ahead: The return of influenza, and the arrival of the new omicron variant.
Last year, the flu season was almost nonexistent. The state only reported around 100 influenza cases and no deaths, compared to tens of thousands of cases in a typical year.
But the flu appears to be making a comeback this year, with around 900 cases reported in the state since October. Wisconsin is not at a high level yet, Westergaard said at a briefing, but the return of the influenza — and the fact that we’re behind last year’s rates for flu shots — is a concern.
“We don’t have capacity to treat a large number of people who are sick and require hospitalization with influenza,” Westergaard said.
As for the new omicron variant — which has turned up in a handful of cases in Wisconsin so far — there’s still a lot to learn.
Early evidence suggests that the new variant may be even more transmissible than delta, and may have some ability to get around immune defenses. But current research also suggests that omicron cases so far have tended to be on the mild side, and that our current vaccines still protect against severe disease.
While we learn more about omicron by the day, officials stressed that the new variant was cause for concern, but not for panic. They stressed the importance of taking the same precautions — getting vaccinated and boosted, masking up in public, and being cautious about who you’re gathering with — to protect our hospitals heading into the festive season.
“We all want to experience a normal holiday season this year,” Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson said at a briefing Tuesday. “But we are still in a pandemic, and our COVID cases continue to rise.”