Wisconsin hospitals prepare for potential staff shortages as ICU beds fill, COVID-19 hospitalizations increase

NOW: Wisconsin hospitals prepare for potential staff shortages as ICU beds fill, COVID-19 hospitalizations increase

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin's top medical leaders say they can't stress enough how dire the state's virus conditions are, especially when it comes to hospitalizations.

"We're all suffering from COVID-fatigue to one extent or another. But I can tell you, the impact COVID is having on our health care system is real. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you about this in the terms I am if this was a hoax. Or if this was overblown or overstated," Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, told CBS 58 in a Zoom call on Tuesday, Nov. 10.

The state has hit a new all-time high of more than 2000 COVID-19 positive patients in Wisconsin hospital beds.

"The fallout from COVID is just not COVID. It's an impact on the healthcare system at large which, even if you don't have COVID, it's your ability to see your physician and your ability to get a surgery," said Dr. David Letzer. 

Letzer is an infectious disease specialist and chairman of the Wisconsin Medical Society's COVID-19 task force. He said having more than 7000 new cases Tuesday means we will see spikes in hospitalizations over the next two weeks.

"I'm a positive person overall so I'm doing my best to come up with a positive spin, but I'm struggling because we know that the hospitalization rates and ICU rates death rates -- They've lag two to four weeks behind new positive numbers. So we know the next month is really not going to have anything positive," Letzer said.

In Milwaukee County, data from Tuesday showed 75 percent of ICU beds and 90 percent of floor beds are in use.

For the first time in this pandemic, Milwaukee County now is in the red zone for percentage of beds being used by COVID-19 positive patients. The county's COVID-19 dashboard shows 22.4 percent of the beds in use are by COVID-19 positive patients. The data shows prior to this week, the highest it had been was 18.2 percent on April 6.

Borgerding said hospitals can postpone elective surgeries to combat bed shortages, but the bigger problem is staffing those beds.

"As COVID continues to spread in our communities, that community exposure multiplies, and it affects our healthcare workforce, as well. So it's not just a patient issue as it relates to COVID spread, it's our health care workforce, as well," Borgerding said.

For weeks, he said hospitals have also been bringing in more staff from other states to help, but that's getting more difficult as most other states are experiencing case surges. He said the only tool we have left is to continue following public health guidelines because showing gratitude toward doctors isn't enough.

"They are healthcare heroes, and that's great to recognize them that way, but the way we say, 'Thank you' to them is by reducing the demand for those 14-hour days that we're requiring them to put in. And that's by slowing down the spread of COVID. That's how you think a health care hero in Wisconsin," Borgerding said.

As hospitals fill up, Letzer said it's also a concern that patients will wait longer to seek medical treatment, but he encourages them not to delay care. If someone is sick, they need to see their primary care physicians.

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