EAU CLAIRE — Amid a swell of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, Eau Claire hospital officials say they’re seeing more severely ill patients and that their health care staff are stretched thin.

Hospitals aren’t yet at the urgent point they reached in November 2020, when a COVID-19 surge resulted in hospital leaders warning that the local health care system could be overwhelmed.

But as of mid-September, local hospitals’ capacities have decreased. Officials say it’s taking a toll on heath care workers.

“The peak of this surge hopefully will not be what it was (last year),” said Jennifer Drayton, chief nursing officer for HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls.

“The difference, right now, is that people who aren’t vaccinated are getting very, very sick. And they get sick very quickly, and it’s all ages … now we’re seeing very, very ill people who have minimal comorbidities. The delta variant is a different animal.”

Both Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals were full to capacity Thursday, which Drayton said isn’t unusual this summer.

“Every day for the past three or four months we’ve been full to capacity and waiting for discharges so we can take in admissions. It’s no different today,” Drayton said Thursday. “It’s just that the number of acutely ill patients has dramatically increased.”

It’s not just patients with severe COVID-19. The two hospitals are seeing an increase in people who need care for other reasons, Drayton said: “We’re seeing a lot more patients with heart failure, COPD, trauma, because people are out and about living their lives again and we didn’t see that during the first surge of COVID.”

The HSHS hospitals will stabilize and treat new patients, but if they need to be admitted to the hospital afterward and there’s not an open bed, they need to be transferred to another facility, Drayton said.

“We’re at the point” of transferring patients to La Crosse and the Twin Cities, Drayton said.

“Sometimes we have to try 10 to 15 different facilities before we find one with an open bed,” she said. “We’ve gotten calls (asking) us to take patients from as far away as the Dakotas.”

Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire isn’t full to capacity, though it’s also seen an increase in hospitalizations, said Bill Priest, chief administrative officer at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire. The hospital had to reopen its COVID-19 unit in mid-August.

As of early Thursday, Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire had six COVID-19 patients, but that number fluctuates on almost an hourly basis and could be significantly higher or lower by day’s end, Priest said.

“Currently ... our limiting factor isn’t physical beds, our limiting factor is our staff,” he said. “As we add these COVID patients in, it’s in addition to the normal patient population that might need hospitalization, those who have a cardiac event or stroke.”

The hospital is able to manage currently, but “it is stretching our resources thin,” Priest said.

It’s typical for Mayo Clinic sites to see high demand for hospital services, not just during the pandemic, but the clinic is also seeing an increase in hospitalized patients with COVID-19, said Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System’s northwest Wisconsin region.

Helmers said in a statement to the Leader-Telegram that during times of high demand in northwest Wisconsin, some patients who need to be admitted must be transferred to a different hospital.

“One thing the public can do to help hospitals like ours deal with increased demand is to seek care in the appropriate location,” Helmers said, adding that Mayo Clinic has noted some people walking into the emergency department to ask for an unscheduled test. People should schedule their COVID-19 tests at a testing location, he said. Mayo Clinic is also experiencing a high volume of phone calls, and people can set up a patient services account at www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/patient-online-services to schedule a test.

Data: County still at January level of transmission

More people with COVID-19 are being hospitalized, Eau Claire County data confirmed.

Roughly seven county residents with COVID-19 were hospitalized in June, 14 in July and about 37 in August. Eighteen county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since Sept. 1, according to data from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

As of Thursday, an average of 55 Eau Claire County residents per day are testing positive for COVID-19, a case rate last seen in January.

HSHS data indicated that most of their hospitalized COVID-19 patients continue to be unvaccinated.

As of Monday, at HSHS’ six Wisconsin and nine Illinois hospitals, 83% of the 149 people hospitalized were unvaccinated, and 54% were younger than 65, according to data from HSHS. In those 15 hospitals, of 39 people in the ICU, 90% were unvaccinated.

Stretched thin

Priest asked the community to get vaccinated and to realize that local health care workers are stretched thin.

“They’re stressed, and kindness goes a long way,” he said.

Drayton said her nurses at Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s are “absolutely exhausted,” working overtime and picking up extra shifts to care for the flow of patients.

“I’ll be honest with you, it’s very hard,” she said. “They care very much about this community, and they’re stepping up and doing the right thing, and they’re tired. It’s really hard to watch patients suffer with COVID.

“Providers, respiratory therapists, nurses, everyone’s bending over backwards with overtime, extra shifts and prayer to keep everybody moving forward,” Drayton added. “But I think if my nurses had to ask one thing of the community, it would be to care enough about us to get vaccinated. Please.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.