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State health officials urge Wisconsinites to help drive down COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths

Doctor with blood sample of Covid-19 Omicron B.1.1.529 Variant.
Stock Adobe
Doctor with blood sample of Covid-19 Omicron B.1.1.529 Variant.

The holiday week started with a strong COVID-19 message from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

The agency is calling on all Wisconsinites to take urgent action to prevent additional hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19.

DHS secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said the seven-day average of new cases is 3,294. That’s nearly double the rate of just two months ago.

Timberlake reported high rates of transmission in every county. She added: "The highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected and is anticipated to cause a rapid increase of disease activity in our state in the coming weeks, just as it has in other states and other countries."

Timberlake said health care systems around the state are being strained to the breaking point.

“Statewide, 96% of intensive care beds and 98% of intermediate care beds are currently in use. As of Dec. 17, our partners at the Wisconsin Hospital Association reported there are 1,664 Wisconsinites hospitalized with COVID-19 — 423 of them in intensive care units,” Timberlake said.

Dr. William Melms, chief medical officer for Marshfield Clinic Health Systems, said its experience mirrors hospitals around the state.

Dr. William Melms speaks at a DHS media briefing Monday.
Screenshot taken by Susan Bence
Dr. William Melms speaks at a DHS media briefing Monday.

"Greater than 90% of the COVID deaths in our facilities have been among the unvaccinated. We just went through a four-week period here at our main hospital in Marshfield where we had 35 of our patients died of COVID," Melms said. "COVID has severely affected our operations. We are turning away over 100 referrals a week from hospitals and facilities that need our help. As I tell my teams, we can always create more space, which we do, but we cannot create the people to care for our patients."

Monday's public health advisory called for getting vaccinated for COVID-19, including a booster as soon as you are eligible, wearing a well-fitting mask indoors when you're with people you don't live with, keeping holiday gatherings small, and if you don't feel well, stay home.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer of the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, said the recommendations aren’t different than before, but people need to hear them differently, "because we're in a different place, we're in a very dangerous place, and we need people to contribute in every way they can to help save the lives that we are in grave danger of not being able to save," Westergaard explained.

The Department of Health Services is fielding hundreds of requests from hospitals and long-term care facilities needing staffing support.

Milwaukee Health Department Clinics and HealthyMKE.com offer free COVID-19 testing and vaccine information.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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