‘We’re hitting our limits’: Madison hospitals stretched to capacity as COVID-19 continues to surge

MADISON, Wis. — Health care providers in Madison are urging the community to take extra precautions as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to push the local health care system to its limits.

As of Thursday, COVID-19 hospitalizations at the city’s three major hospitals — UnityPoint Health – Meriter, UW Hospital, and SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital — were tied with the previous peak of 179. As cases continue to rise throughout Dane County, health care providers are worried that hospitalizations might reach even higher levels.

“We are asking our community to help keep our health care workers safe and healthy, by continuing to practice COVID-19 safety,” said Dr. Pam Wetzel, chief medical officer at UnityPoint Health – Meriter. “Continued spread of COVID-19 is preventable, we have the tools to stop the spread—masking, limiting gatherings and getting vaccinated and boosted.”

Officials said hospital employees are testing positive at similar rates seen within the community, which has contributed to staffing shortages that make providing care even more difficult.

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“We’re extremely short-staffed right now,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health’s chief quality officer. “We’re doing our best to care for as many patients as we can, but the need is outpacing our capacity. With COVID cases rising and staff out because they’re awaiting test results or have tested positive, we’re hitting our limits.”

Kyle Nondorf, the president of SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Madison, echoed that message, saying health care workers have made numerous sacrifices even when they’re off the clock.

“Many of them not only making sacrifices by giving up time with their loved ones to care for the community, when they’re not at work they’re also not doing social gatherings so that they can keep themselves safe,” he said.

Those workers can’t do it alone, he added.

“Now is the time to heed what we’ve been saying for the last two years because we really are stretched to our capacity at this point,” Nondorf said.

While the message of masking and vaccinating may be repetitive, health care officials said it’s still the best way forward.

“We have got to come together for the common good of the community and I think by us doing that, that is our path out of this,” Nondorf said.

Because of staffing shortages and an overload of COVID-19 patients, local providers have had to postpone many non-emergency surgeries and procedures. Representatives with the three local providers said they plan to reassess that policy on a weekly basis.

“There’s lots of innovative thinking going on but ultimately there’s a whole lot of patients and relatively few providers for them, doctors, nurses, environmental services people, our chefs,” Bartho Caponi, an internal medicine hospitalist from UW Health, said.

The recent surge in cases on a county and statewide level has led to high demand for COVID-19 testing that’s strained local health officials’ ability to keep up.

On Thursday, Public Health Madison and Dane County announced plans to open a new walk-up testing site at the Alliant Energy Center, shortly after announcing expanded hours at PHMDC’s South Park Street clinic.

A list of open appointments is available on PHMDC’s testing site.