‘It’s very real’: As COVID hospitalizations mount, UW Health Doctor says what’s next could rely on the public

NOTE: This is part two of a three part series highlighting COVID-19 units at UW Hospital. Part one aired Thursday and part three will air Sunday night. 

MADISON, Wis. – As cases of Coronavirus continue to mount in Wisconsin, those on the front lines in Dane County are trying to take care of a record number of hospitalized patients with the virus.

“We are working very hard,” said Dr. Hilary Faust of UW Health. “It is something that we’re trying to figure out the ways we can get through this winter when we foresee that this surge may be prolonged and go on for five, six, or seven more months.”

Faust says she’s been working with COVID patients at UW Hospital since March, when a first wave of hospitalizations came before the benefit of rapid testing.

“In the beginning before we had our own tests here,” Faust said. “We had to send them out and it was taking days to up to a week to find out whether patients had COVID or not. It was really difficult to take care of patients when there was so much uncertainty around their diagnosis.”

Since then, Faust says UW Hospital has made rapid strides in its ability to treat COVID-19 patients, with tests now coming back in just hours, and treatments like steroids and Remdesivir making a significant impact.

But as Wisconsin heads into the winter, hospitalizations are nearly three times as high as they were in the spring. Last week, UW Hospital effectively doubled the space used to treat critically ill patients. Even then, it might not be enough.

“We should be encouraging people and supporting people to try and make the best decisions they can,” she said.  “Reminding them that there’s a real human toll if they don’t. That’s a toll on the patients who get sick, it’s a toll on the doctors and nurses and hospital staffs that are taking care of those patients.”

Dr. Faust says she and many other healthcare workers are unable to see family for the holidays. She says despite many feeling COVID fatigue, it’s more important now than ever to adhere to health and safety guidelines that can reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

“We think things like wearing a mask are relatively easy to do,” she said.  “We hope that people don’t see that as a political statement, they just see it as they’re protecting themselves and protecting their neighbors and their families.”

“It’s been alarming to see in some ways just denial of science, that people say covid is a hoax or that it’s not real,” she said. “I can assure you it’s very real. We’ve been taking care of these patients day in and day out for the last eight months and in particular the last couple of weeks.”

Faust says while many outside a hospital cannot see the toll COVID-19 takes on a person, nurses and doctors are exposed to it constantly.

“Most of my patients are so ill, that most of them are sedated and on a mechanical ventilator. They have a breathing tube in. We don’t get to communicate very much. A lot of patients under those conditions get very confused. Putting myself in their place, I’d imagine it’s very scary, very frightening, very isolating to be sick and not have your family here with you,” she said.

On Thursday, a Wisconsin court struck down an order limiting capacity in bars and restaurants. While COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin average 5,000+ over the last seven days, there are currently no statewide measures in place to attempt to slow the spread.

“I wish with all my heart that (people) were right and COVID would go away today, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” Faust said.  “We have some extremely ill patients here who are requiring very advanced forms of life support. Some will make it through with a lot or hard work on their own and our part, with a lot of determination and some won’t.”