‘We are at full. Period:’ Wisconsin health officials share concerns over rising COVID-19 hospitalizations

MADISON, Wis. — Hospital leaders from across Wisconsin shared a similar message during a virtual roundtable Tuesday: they’re out of space and need help.

It’s a heavy message nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, more than 95% of the state’s intensive care beds are in use, and doctors said the trait many of them have in common is no coincidence.

 “Unfortunately, the vast majority of our COVID-19 admissions are patients that are unvaccinated, and could have prevented their need for care if they had taken action earlier during this pandemic,” said Eric Conley, President of Froedtert Hospital, the only level one trauma care facility in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

“We are at full. Period,” he said.

During an appearance on Live at Four, UW Health’s chief quality officer Dr. Jeff Pothof said UW Hospital is also “really full.”

“During the pandemic, we would have times when we were full — it might be a few hours (until) we could get people to fit — now it’s not all COVID patients; it’s other patients, but there’s times where many hours go by before the right ICU bed opens up,” he said.

That leaves other hospitals that are trying to transfer patients to larger hospitals like UW or Froedtert in a lurch as they wait for a bed to open up, Pothof added.

Pothof said he does not believe the hospital capacity woes are due to a post-Thanksgiving surge. Instead, he cited not just rising COVID-19 case counts but other factors like a higher number of people who are sick who may have put off care amid the pandemic.

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Beyond beds, another shortfall looms over doctors’ heads: Who is going to take care of the people in them? There is a projected 10,000 nurse shortage in Wisconsin in the next ten years, and many left their jobs during the pandemic.

“The last year or so somewhere between 15% and 18% of people have left healthcare,” said Dr. Imran Andrabi, CEO of Thedacare.

Dr. Sue Turney, the CEO of Marshfield Clinic Health System, added the worker shortage combined with the unvaccinated population are negatively impacting non-COVID patients.

“We now are again delaying procedures, delaying screening and other types of routine care because we just don’t have the capacity,” she said.

Each doctor pleaded for vaccines and masking to keep more people from becoming ill enough for hospitals.

“Going back to the basics and doing the preventative work on the front end is extremely important to manage the capacity within our hospitals,” Andrabi said.