MADISON — As the country’s third wave of COVID-19 threatens to become a tsunami and Americans debate whether to gather for Thanksgiving, surges in the Midwest are overwhelming hospitals and efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
With records being broken in some form nearly every day, states such as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin are relying on a range of efforts to rein in the pandemic, including direct appeals to the public from governors.
But as COVID-19 hospitalizations soar amid shortages of nurses and other health care workers, the situation in some places is becoming severe.
“We’re getting close to the breaking point,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer at University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. The 505-bed hospital plans to open an eighth wing for COVID-19 patients soon, might place some patients in pre-op waiting rooms and is postponing procedures for others, such as those seeking heart valve replacements.
“If things don’t change, and I don’t have anything that’s telling me that it’s going to change, we could be in a position where we’re rationing care,” Pothof said.
At Franciscan Health’s hospital in Michigan City, Indiana, more than 90% of beds are occupied, with roughly a third filled by patients with COVID-19, a higher proportion than early in the pandemic.
“We are definitely heading down a path that’s not a good one for us,” CEO Dean Mazzoni said.
Dr. James Leonard of Northwest Health said all of the health network’s hospitals in LaPorte, Valparaiso and Knox in Northwest Indiana are at capacity. If cases keep climbing at current rates, “we will actually be beyond our capacity to safely care for these patients and we’ll be looking downstate to get some help,” Leonard said.
Nationally, daily new cases surpassed 150,000 for the first time Thursday, and coronavirus hospitalizations exceeded 65,000. COVID-19 deaths, still below levels in the spring, have climbed more than 40% over the past two weeks and set records last week in places like Wisconsin, where health officials said just 8% of intensive care beds remained available.
The Dakotas and Wyoming had the country’s highest infection rates last week, but Iowa and Wisconsin weren’t far behind, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Activity in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota was also higher than in most states.
The unprecedented U.S. increases, following previous peaks in April and July, come as many Americans consider doing what health officials say they should avoid — getting together on Thanksgiving with family or friends outside of their immediate household.
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 epidemic is worsening, and small household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise in COVID-19 cases,” the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. In a recent directive, the agency recommended online celebrations or at least keeping in-person meetings very small, outdoors or well-ventilated, and wearing masks when not eating.
Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine reissued a mask order and said retail stores would be closed for 24 hours if inspectors twice found workers or customers didn’t comply.
In a televised address on Veterans Day, DeWine referenced soldiers who died for the country and asked for another form of sacrifice. “Today we all must do something far less dramatic, but very important,” he said. “Wear a mask, so that your friends, neighbors and family members might live.”
The previous night, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, gave a similar address, announcing an order advising residents to stay home.
“It’s not safe to have others over, it’s just not safe,” said Evers, who cited a respected University of Washington projection that the state’s COVID-19 deaths, which reached 2,515 Thursday, would hit 5,000 by Jan. 1 without additional preventive measures.
DeWine, Evers and the governors of Michigan, Kentucky, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana in April pledged to closely coordinate their pandemic responses.
Little has been said publicly about the effort in recent months, but last week Evers said the bipartisan group of governors is buying some protective equipment together and asking Congress to send more COVID-19 relief aid to states.
“We do talk regularly,” Evers said. “Primarily we look at different strategies that work or don’t work.”
Minnesota, where COVID-19 activity was considerably lower than in neighboring Wisconsin for most of September and October, reported a record 7,228 cases Thursday as it, too, became a hotspot.
Winona Health, the only hospital in Winona, is monitoring the situation, CEO Rachelle Schultz said.
“The surge that appears to be underway right now due to the high positivity rate in our community is being watched closely and we evaluate beds, staffing and supplies and all of our services so that we are prepared,” she said.
In Iowa, pleas from hospital and public health officials have been in unison: All residents must do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 or Iowa hospitals may soon become overrun by patients infected with the virus, and then Iowa’s health care workers, too, may become overwhelmed by the surging patient load.
“It is starting to get dire,” said Dr. Matthew Sojka, chief medical officer for Mercy One-Northeast Iowa.
Iowa on Tuesday reported a record 230 new COVID-19 hospitalizations, blowing past the previous high of 181.
In southeastern Wisconsin’s Kenosha County, where COVID-19 cases and deaths are “skyrocketing,” the testing positivity rate was 29%, said health officer Jenn Freiheit.
“That’s as high as it’s ever been, and that’s really, really bad,” she said. “You want your percent positive rate at like 4 to 6% in order to control a virus.”
With coronavirus hospitalizations increasing, “it’s just blowing up,” Freiheit said.
The county’s efforts to interview people who test positive and reach those with whom they have been in close contact can’t keep up, as is the case throughout most of the state. “Public health as a system is extremely stressed,” she said.
Western Wisconsin “is in crisis,” the La Crosse-based Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative declared earlier in the week. “Every metric we track is gravely concerning, and projections show that without a significant change in behavior by everyone in our community hospitalizations and deaths will continue to increase,” the group said. “This is an emergency.”
Northwest of Madison, Sauk County Health Deputy Director Cathy Warwick has experienced the coronavirus professionally and personally.
Warwick contracted COVID-19 in July after her husband, a pharmacist, became ill. Though she initially had mild symptoms, Warwick has continued to experience “brain fog,” fatigue, trouble sleeping, muscle aches and, most surprising, hair loss.
She is considered a “long hauler,” someone with lingering complications of coronavirus infection.
“I think that what people don’t understand is that we don’t have enough information yet to know how many people will have lasting troubles from this virus, and have it not be acute, but have it be chronic,” Warwick said. “I’m hopeful that it’s going to get better, but I don’t know.”
Contributing reporting are Lee Enterprises Midwest reporters David Wahlberg of the Wisconsin State Journal; Heather Larson Poyner of the Kenosha News; Joseph Pete, Lauren Cross and Dan Carden of The Times of Northwest Indiana; Emily Pyrek of the La Crosse Tribune; and Rachel Mergen of the Winona Daily News.
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