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The delta variant is straining Wisconsin hospitals: who's affected, and why is it happening?

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Wisconsin hospitals are strained under a surge of delta variant cases, causing 97% of ICU beds to be taken up statewide.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 270 health care facilities have requested staffing help, and the state has asked the federal government for medical reserve teams.

Dr. Ben Weston, chief health policy officer for Milwaukee County, explains what happens when hospitals fill up this way.

First, Weston said, hospitals try to move patients around. "So if Hospital A starts to get full, you look at hospital B, and you say, 'can we transfer this patient with pneumonia, this patient with a broken leg, this patient with a stroke, whatever it is, can we transfer them to hospital B?'" said Weston.

Weston said the challenge Wisconsin hospitals are seeing is that other hospitals are also full. “And so there are no hospitals to just transport patients over to who have a lot of open beds,” Weston explained.

That results in a trickle down of patients to emergency departments, like where Weston works.

"So, if the ICU beds are full, and mid-level care beds are full and normal inpatient beds are full, you still have patients coming into that front door of the hospital, that emergency department and those patients still need care. And sometimes they still need to be admitted," Weston said.

Weston said patients end up sitting in the emergency department, waiting for beds, in a status called “boarding.”

“Obviously that backs up the entire system. It causes longer waits in the waiting room. It causes difficulty in finding beds in the emergency department for patients with true emergencies. So, it affects the entire healthcare system,” said Weston.

Weston added that these surges affect everybody, beyond the people currently hospitalized with COVID.

“We hear a lot about, you know, [that] 88% of the people in hospital X or who have COVID are unvaccinated. But those are not individual repercussions. [Those are] repercussions on the entire healthcare system,” said Weston.

He explained that the lack of hospital beds affects the 50-year-old who comes in with chest pain and wants to be seen in the emergency department, as well as the 30-year-old who falls and breaks their leg and needs to be seen. “All those people are affected by this surge in COVID and this difficulty with finding beds,” Weston noted.

Weston said whether it's statewide or in the county, there are more people hospitalized with COVID right now than at any point in the last 12 months. He added that hospitals will have to keep an eye on capacity levels to determine whether Wisconsin will establish another alternative care facility like the one on the Wisconsin State Fair Park grounds in late 2020 and early 2021.

What has contributed to the burden in Wisconsin at this time? Weston said COVID seems to go in waves, and nobody has a good answer for why that is.

"It probably has to do with unvaccinated populations, the grouping of those unvaccinated populations," Weston explained. But he said the curbing of these surges, like previous surges that have occurred in places like the south and early on in New York City, has to do with the fact that people are more cautious when a wave starts to happen.

“[People] don't go out as much. They wear masks more. They distance more. And so I think all these contribute to it. But the answer is, we don't know, we don't understand why some states have elevated levels of COVID,” Weston said.

Weston said we do know that surges don’t seem to be entirely seasonal, as states can be in warm weather and get COVID as well. “So, it is one of the things that we don't yet understand fully about this virus."

Weston said people need to remember that we're still in a pandemic. “You can go around Milwaukee County, you could spend a day going to various areas and have no idea that there's a pandemic going on, and that's a problem,” he said.

“We need to start wearing masks. We need to continue to distance [and] continue to think about ventilation. And honestly more than anything else, we need to get people vaccinated,” Weston said.

Weston said people who are on the fence should talk to their doctors. He noted that the omicron variant is around the corner. “And we're not quite sure yet what that's going to bring,” he said. “So, if there was ever a time to get vaccinated, this is it.”

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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