EAU CLAIRE — The surge in COVID-19 cases that led Chippewa Valley hospitals to report last week that all of their beds were full has not abated.
If anything, the situation has gotten worse, regional hospital officials said Tuesday.
Mayo Clinic Health System, for instance, had around 80 COVID-19 patients most of last week at its hospitals in Eau Claire, Menomonie, Barron, Bloomer and Osseo, but that number had risen to 105 by Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s a critical situation. Our beds remain full, and we continue to be really on the verge of being overwhelmed,” said Jason Craig, regional chair of administration for Mayo Clinic Health System in northwest Wisconsin. “It remains a very challenging environment on an hourly basis to meet patient demands.”
All 36 intensive care and medical surgical beds at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire also were full as of Tuesday afternoon, with 17 of them occupied by COVID-19 patients.
“This is a crisis, and it’s right here in our backyard,” said Bill Priest, chief administrative officer for Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire.
Likewise, HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls reported being at or near capacity on Tuesday afternoon.
“Unfortunately, I would have to say that the situation is the same to a little bit worse than last week,” said Ken Johnson, an emergency department physician and chief medical officer for Prevea Health. “The number of COVID patients is the same or a little more than last week and we were near capacity then. I think we’re still in the heart of it.”
With a positivity rate of about 35% for the past few days in Wisconsin, the only bright spot is that rate is showing signs of leveling off instead of continuing its recent upward trend, Johnson said.
Wisconsin recorded 318 new COVID-19 hospitalizations and 7,090 new positive tests Tuesday, giving the state a total of 323,848 cases so far this year. The number of virus-related deaths climbed by 92 to hit 2,741, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Dr. Amy Williams, executive dean of the Mayo Clinic Practice in Rochester, Minnesota, said rising COVID-19 cases have put a burden on hospital systems throughout the Midwest.
“The bottom line is our hospitals are very busy, our health care workers are very busy ... and we’re still seeing a spread in our communities,” Williams said.
Hospital officials from all three regional systems emphasized that people who become ill or suffer serious health problems still should seek treatment and that the health care facilities will find a way to care for them.
“If someone needs to be seen in the emergency department or by their doctor, we still want them to come in,” Priest said, noting that the Marshfield system has brought in a number of traveling nurses to help meet the excess demand accompanying the COVID-19 spike. “Even though we’re full, we’re still going to find a way to get them the care they need.”
The Marshfield system continues to perform some elective procedures, though it has throttled down somewhat because of capacity limits.
Mayo Clinic Health System, by contrast, is deferring elective procedures until at least December, with weekly review of conditions and capacity issues. It also continues to provide emergency and trauma care.
The surge exacerbates the capacity squeeze because COVID-19 patients tend to stay in the hospital two to three times longer than other patients, Craig said.
The HSHS facilities are postponing elective procedures that require overnight beds on a case-by-case basis.
The area hospitals reported that COVID-19 patient levels remain fluid, meaning bed availability changes by the hour. When there is no room, the local hospitals can transfer patients to other facilities in their systems or even to other hospitals in other systems, although they try to treat people close to home whenever possible.
Staffing is key to providing that care, and hospital officials said it is a constant struggle to maintain enough healthy providers to care for the influx of patients.
The regional Mayo hospitals have had about 300 staff off work most days lately because of COVID-19, whether they have tested positive, had a potential exposure or are caring for family members, Craig said.
Priest didn’t provide an exact number of Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire staff out of work because of the virus but agreed staffing is the “pinch point” that determines how many patients the hospital can host.
The Chippewa Valley hospital officials reiterated their calls for community members to do their part to help with the health care crisis by following the now-familiar advice of public health officials: Wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash or sanitize hands frequently, and avoid gatherings with people outside your immediate household.
“We’re not powerless. We need to follow the guidelines,” Priest said. “If we can do those things, it’s going to give us the best chance to get through this.”
Craig acknowledged that COVID fatigue is real and that making the sacrifices necessary to slow the spread of the virus is difficult, especially eight months into the pandemic.
“But if ever there is a time to not let down our guard,” he said, “now is that time.”