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Chippewa Valley hospitals remain full amid COVID-19 surge
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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.”

Hobbs Ice Arena closing temporarily
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EAU CLAIRE – The city announced Tuesday the Hobbs Ice Arena will close to the public as of Wednesday, and will not reopen before Dec. 8.

The announcement comes as the Chippewa Valley experiences a sharp increase in the number of COVID cases. While earlier rises in Wisconsin were largely centered on the Milwaukee and Fox Valley areas, the current increases are taking a significant toll locally.

Renee Tyler, community services director, made the announcement Tuesday afternoon. During the closure there will be no hockey practices, figure skating, open skates or competitive games. Other winter programming is also on hold.

“The message from both Governor Evers and the Eau Claire City-County Health Department is that we avoid gatherings of any size with individuals who are not members of our immediate family or household,” Tyler wrote. “The Eau Claire Skating Community is passionate about your sport, and we know you are as passionate about doing your part to help keep our entire Eau Claire Community safe by temporarily pausing your gatherings at Hobbs Ice Arena. Stay well and we look forward to welcoming you back to the rink as soon as we can safely do so.”

Officials plan to re-evaluate the closure on Dec. 8.

The arena has had an eventful year already. Its budget was slimmed from $906,000 to $615,750 due to curtailed activities. Over the summer, officials took advantage of the space available to move the Catholic Charities homeless shelter to the arena. The move allowed better spacing of those at the shelter than its normal home.

In October, the shelter moved to the former Hansen’s IGA in preparation for the arena’s reopening for winter activities.

Eau Claire County had about 2,500 confirmed COVID cases in early October, when the shelter moved out of the arena. That total now stands at more than 6,200. The county’s death toll has gone from fewer than 10 at that time to 46 as of Tuesday. Other area counties have seen similarly steep increases in the number of COVID cases they are facing.

The rising numbers have also created serious concerns about the ability of area hospitals to keep up. Bans on visitors and elective procedures, steps taken in many areas this past spring, have returned to Chippewa Valley hospitals as beds fill up.

State data suggests at least 80 percent of the beds in northwestern Wisconsin hospitals are occupied.

Trump faces approaching deadline for recount in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis. — The final Wisconsin county submitted its canvassed vote totals to the state elections commission on Tuesday morning, starting the clock for President Donald Trump to file for a recount as he has promised supporters he would.

The canvassed totals show Democrat Joe Biden beat Trump by about 20,600 votes, which is a roughly six-tenths of a point margin — close enough for Trump to file for a recount.

He has until 5 p.m. on Wednesday to submit the $7.9 million estimated cost for a statewide recount and other required paperwork. Trump could also file for a recount only in select counties, which would reduce his cost and allow him to target areas where votes were predominantly for Biden. Counties would have to start the recount no later than Saturday and complete it by Dec. 1.

Trump has been promising a recount in Wisconsin as part of fundraising pleas he’s been issuing since he lost the election to Biden, but a campaign spokeswoman stopped short of promising a recount on Tuesday.

“The legal team continues to examine the issues with irregularities in Wisconsin and are leaving all legal options open, including a recount and an audit,” said Jenna Ellis, Trump 2020 legal adviser.

An audit of every November election is required under state law, whether a candidate requests one or not. The audit will either take place as part of the recount or before the Dec. 1 certification if there is no recount, said Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney. The audit of ballots from 190 randomly selected reporting units is done by hand to verify the machine count, Magney said.

The counties canvassed results, which included provisional ballots not counted on Election Day, changed little from the unofficial results posted earlier.

Past recounts both in Wisconsin and nationwide have resulted in only minor changes in the vote total. A 2016 presidential recount in Wisconsin netted Trump just 131 additional votes. Trump’s margin of victory that year, less than 23,000 votes, was similar to Biden’s win this year.

The 2016 recount was requested by Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Trump opposed the recount at the time. State law was later changed to only allow candidates within a percentage point of the winner to request recounts.