Bed capacity in Fox Valley hospitals is now seriously threatened by the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the region, health care leaders said Thursday.
The speed of the spread of the virus could more than double the number of needed hospital beds by the end of this month, ThedaCare senior innovation executive Frank Mellon told community stakeholders in a virtual meeting.
Models initially projected a peak of 114 beds needed to care for COVID-19 patients in the region, Mellon said. Now, they’ll need close to 180 — and could need a hundred more if transmission rates keep rising.
That possibility doesn’t just endanger COVID-19 patients, ThedaCare President and CEO Dr. Imran Andrabi said. It puts at risk anyone who may need the hospital for other reasons.
“How are we going to continue to (help those people) … if we don’t do something different to stem the tidal wave that is already here and potentially could get worse?” Andrabi said.
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On Wednesday afternoon, 112 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in the eight counties that encompass the Fox Valley Healthcare Emergency Readiness Coalition. That’s up from 13 patients just over a month ago.
Other hospitals across the state are similarly filling up, erasing the option to route patients elsewhere for care, Andrabi said. Brown County leaders said last week their hospitals are nearly overwhelmed, and in Wausau, Aspirus Healthcare has had to place some patients on a waitlist.
Hospitals were ready to expand the number of beds and the supply of personal protective equipment, said Dr. Tom Nichols, vice president of medical affairs at Ascension St. Elizabeth Hospital. But what doesn’t get stretched as easily is people.
The number of St. Elizabeth staff unable to come to work because they’ve tested positive, they’re quarantining or have a sick child at home is growing quickly, Nichols said. In ThedaCare’s network on Wednesday, Andrabi added, 250 employees did not show up to work.
Those front-line workers are largely contracting the virus in the community, not inside hospitals, they said.
“I walk through our COVID units at the hospital every day. Given the safety protocols, which are extensive … I feel safe walking through those units,” Nichols said. “I don’t always feel that same level of safety when I’m out in the community.”
Appleton health officer Kurt Eggebrecht told the group that public health resources are becoming just as strained. The city has, for five straight weeks, set records for newly reported cases, confirming 340 last week.
Overwhelmed by the case load, health department staffers are struggling to rapidly identify and quarantine those who have tested positive, he said — a crucial tool to slow the spread.
The community testing site in Oshkosh will close in 10 weeks as the Wisconsin National Guard wraps up its mission, he added, posing another problem for an area already in need of more tests.
“We don’t have to wonder why (the rapid spread) is happening. We see it,” Eggebrecht said, pointing to packed bars on football game days and photos of large gatherings being posted on social media.
Becky Bartoszek, president and CEO of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, said the attention the region is receiving now is “not the attention we’re looking for” as a place that draws significant revenue from hosting large events.
The pandemic is driving people in major metropolitan areas to seek smaller communities to call home, she said, but being featured in national media as a COVID-19 hotspot will not make the Fox Cities seem like an attractive option.
Sixty percent of area organizations will experience a budget hit because of the COVID-19 crisis, Bartoszek said. The Fox Cities and Oshkosh regions had the second-lowest hotel occupancy in the state in August, she said, and many hospitality businesses are only staffed at around 50%.
She asked business leaders to comply with local contact tracing efforts and work with their employees to use tools to stop the spread.
“If anyone has a chance of individuals listening to them, it will be (an) employer,” Bartoszek said.
Hospitals can respond to what’s happening, Nichols said, but they can’t solve it alone.
The community must buy in again to staying home, physically distancing and wearing masks to re-flatten the new curve that is projected in the coming weeks.
“If you have been waiting for an alarm bell to go off,” Nichols said, “that’s where we’re at now.”
Contact reporter Madeline Heim at 920-996-7266 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @madeline_heim.
This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Community actions must change now to stop the ‘tidal wave’ of COVID-19 patients pouring into Fox Valley hospitals, health care leaders say