More Wisconsinites on ventilators now than at any other point of COVID pandemic

UW Health COVID ward

MADISON, Wis. — Health officials in Wisconsin say the situation in the state’s hospitals right now is as bad as it has ever been at any point during the coronavirus pandemic.

With thousands of new coronavirus cases being confirmed every day in the state — including 5,097 new cases on Wednesday, setting a new record for single-day cases in 2021 — many hospitals are finding themselves overwhelmed and having to divert people with other serious medical conditions to hospitals hundreds of miles away because they don’t have the space to treat them, officials said Thursday.

“These are numbers that we have not seen since last December,” Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said in a briefing Thursday.

The more than 5,000 new cases reported on December 1 were the most reported in the state in a single day since 5,097 new cases were confirmed more than a year ago on November 25, 2020. Wisconsin’s all-time single-day high to date is 7,870 new cases, recorded on November 17, 2020.

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Statewide, 97% of intensive care beds are currently occupied and 98% of intermediate care beds are in use, according to the latest state data. That puts a strain on the entire healthcare system, according to Prevea Health CEO Dr. Ashok Rai.

“A bed is not (just) a bed in health care. A bed is a room, nurses, CNAs, our EVS staff that clean the room, and physicians to take care of that patient. And COVID-19 patients are extremely labor-intensive, so one COVID patient may take away up to 3 beds for a different type of disease,” Dr. Rai said.

Timberlake says that means those of us who might need to go to the hospital for other medical emergencies may not get the care we need.

“With so many hospitals and health care workers already stressed by caring for COVID-19 patients, it becomes increasingly difficult to treat patients who need to come in for other reasons,” Timberlake said.

Officials say on average, the people being hospitalized for COVID-19 now are sicker, younger, and are hospitalized longer than those who were hospitalized during other parts of the pandemic.

On November 30, Wisconsin also saw the highest number of people on ventilators with COVID-19 it has ever had during the pandemic, with 688 people on ventilators. The previous high was 638 on November 18, 2020.

Health officials say the vast majority of people on ventilators have not been vaccinated. The latest state numbers show unvaccinated people are nine times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 11 times more likely to die than those who have been vaccinated.

In the latest update provided in mid-November, Wisconsin saw 456.4 COVID cases and 12.2 hospitalizations per 100,000 vaccinated people and 2,255.1 COVID cases and 132 hospitalizations per 100,000 unvaccinated people.

“They are the ones that are not only using the highest amount of resources but staying the longest,” Dr. Rai said. “It’s very frustrating when you know you have a stroke patient coming in and you can’t take care of them the way you want to because, basically, an admission (in the hospital) that’s preventable through vaccination is happening.

Dr. Rai says on of Prevea Health’s Green Bay-area hospitals recently had to turn away 28 patients being transferred in with non-COVID medical emergencies, including three people suffering strokes. Some of those patients had to be transferred to hospitals more than 200 miles from home because that was the nearest hospital that had beds available.

“It has created a sense of, at times, a little bit of frustration, with when are we going to be able to move past this if it’s not now?” Dr. Rai said.