EAU CLAIRE — The latest surge in COVID-19 cases has already full Chippewa Valley hospitals bracing for an expected peak in hospitalizations later this month.

While hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls report continuing to be at or over capacity, officials predicted the number of hospitalizations fueled by the omicron variant will climb even higher in west-central Wisconsin.

“We’re currently on a pretty steep upslope. We expect to hit the peak in the next two to three weeks,” said Dr. Ken Johnson, the chief medical officer for Prevea Health who practices in the emergency departments at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.

Though omicron appears less likely to cause severe disease, it is highly contagious and causing so many people to become infected that the sheer volume of cases still results in a high number of individuals sick enough to require hospitalization, Johnson said.

It likely will be six to eight more weeks before cases return to the level they were at a couple months ago, he said.

Marshfield Clinic officials indicated they had been expecting a surge following an increase in family gatherings for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“The modeling we use says this is the week we will see more of a peak, and that is what we’re seeing,” said Bill Priest, chief administrative officer of Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire.

Mayo Clinic Health System is facing the same challenges at its northwest Wisconsin hospitals, which were treating 29 hospitalized COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday, up from 27 on Monday.

“Mayo Clinic hospitals have been operating at or near capacity for months, and in recent weeks we have seen a very significant increase in overall test positivity rates, which historically has been followed by rapid increases in COVID-19-related hospitalizations,” said Dr. Richard Helmers, a pulmonologist and regional vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System. “The test positivity rate at Mayo Clinic Health System testing sites in northwest Wisconsin has risen above 30%, the highest percentage recorded during the pandemic to date.”

The 15 HSHS hospitals across Wisconsin and Illinois continued to report a record 303 patients hospitalized with the virus on Tuesday. The system first sounded the alarm Friday about hitting the record, which topped the previous high set in November 2020. The current total includes multiple children and pregnant women.

The regional increase comes amid a nationwide surge that saw U.S. hospitals set a record Tuesday with nearly 146,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. In Wisconsin, Tuesday’s total was 2,244, including 486 in intensive care units, the state Department of Health Services reported.

In addition to pushing the limits of local hospital capacity, the surge exacerbates staffing concerns already plaguing health care providers and other employers in a tight labor market.

“That’s where the rub really comes because the spike is affecting health care staff as well as the community,” Priest said. “Our staff is struggling too with testing positive, needing tests and having family members test positive.”

Health care workers, just like everyone else, must miss at least five days of work if they come down with the virus, according to new guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that puts a strain on the health care system when staff absences increase at the same time the patient load rises, Johnson said.

“We are concerned about staffing trends and making sure we have enough providers and staff to appropriately care for patients,” Johnson said. “Right now we’re managing, but it’s very stressful on the staff.”

The squeeze is so great that hospitals in some parts of the country, including California, have shifted to a crisis policy of allowing health care workers with asymptomatic COVID-19 cases to return to work immediately without isolating and eliminating requirements for testing and quarantining for asymptomatic people with a known exposure.

With cases soaring, Johnson said HSHS officials understand that demand is strong for COVID-19 testing but asked people not to seek tests at urgent care or emergency departments because that can delay treatment for people seeking care for serious illness.

All of the local providers said their experience has confirmed research indicating that unvaccinated people are much more likely to be hospitalized or die due to complications from COVID-19 than those who have received one of the approved vaccines.

“The best line of defense is getting a COVID-19 vaccination and booster, if a person is eligible,” Helmers said. “The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing severe COVID-19 illness and related hospitalizations and death.”

Helmers added that widespread vaccination also will reduce the spread of variants and prevent the mutation of the virus into even more dangerous strains.

Local health officials reiterated often-repeated messages encouraging residents to protect themselves and the community by getting vaccinated, obtaining a booster and practicing safe behaviors such as masking, physical distancing and frequent handwashing.

“I know vaccines have become highly politicized, but just from a scientific standpoint they do help keep people out of the hospital,” Johnson said. “That’s not political.”