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Wisconsin Hospital Leaders: We Need To 'Triple Down' On Public Health Measures

Chuck Quirmbach
The main entrance to Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Updated Thursday at 8:24 a.m. CST 

Wisconsin health leaders sounded more alarms Wednesday about the rapidly spreading coronavirus, urging the public to take the threat seriously and for policy makers to come together and form a united front against the virus that shows no signs of abating.

This comes after Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday night that projections from the University of Washington indicate that based on current data, approximately 5,000 Wisconsinites could die from COVID-19 by January 1, if no further actions are taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The state's current reported death toll is 2,457.

The only way to stop the coronavirus pandemic from getting even worse in Wisconsin is to “triple down,” individually and collectively, on public health measures, said Dr. Mark Kaufman, chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Hospital Association, at a virtual meeting of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

“We really know what works, we just need to do it and we all need to do it,” he said.

It's a message that's taken on greater urgency as Wisconsin once again set records for new daily positive cases, deaths and hospitalizations on Tuesday. The surge, which began in September, came as the U.S. hit a record number of coronavirus hospitalizations Tuesday and surpassed 1 million new confirmed cases in just the first 10 days of November.

We must all wear masks, keep a social distance, avoid gathering particularly indoors, and frequently wash our hands, Kaufman said. Public health leaders have been delivering the same message since the pandemic began nine months ago, and Gov. Tony Evers, in an unusual prime-time speech Tuesday, urged Wisconsin residents to work together to fight the virus.

Wisconsin is near a point where hospitals are so overwhelmed they will not be able to save the lives of people who come in to be treated, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the state's chief medical officer, during a separate Wisconsin Health News panel Wednesday.

"So, we're very close to a tipping point," he said. "Right now, all the hospitals are strained and causing a lot of stress on health care workers and leaders. The case fatality rate has remained kind of low, relative to what we've seen elsewhere. But there is a real danger, where this could get much worse quickly and that tipping point is when we stop being able to save everyone who gets severely ill."

"But there is a real danger, where this could get much worse quickly and that tipping point is when we stop being able to save everyone who gets severely ill." - Dr. Ryan Westergaard

Eric Borgerding, president of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said he's also concerned about health care providers. He said hospitals were stressed all across the state, with not enough staff to deal with the rising number of patients. This doesn't mean a shortage of rooms, Borgerding explained.

"If that were just the issue, we could solve our capacity issues by just expanding beds or other type of physical capacity this wouldn't be as much of a problem as it is. The problem is you have to be able to staff those beds. That is truly one of the significant concerns I'm hearing about regularly," he said.

Borgerding said there are 100s and maybe 1,000s of health care workers off the front lines right now because they have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it in the community and need to quarantine.

The state has set a new record for daily hospitalizations every day since Nov. 2, hitting 2,070 COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals on Tuesday.

Public health departments are overwhelmed and unable to do adequate contact tracing, said Kirsten Johnson, director of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department in suburban Milwaukee.

“We can’t get our arms around this,” she said.

Johnson said there may be an odd upside to the current surge. "You know, early on, the message wasn't resonating with people because they didn't know anyone who is positive. They didn't know anyone critically ill. It hadn't impacted them personally," she said. "I think we're reaching a point where almost everyone knows someone who has become sick. A lot of people know people who have become critically ill. A lot of people know people who have become hospitalized, and I'm hoping that will have an impact on people's behavior."

There were more than 7,000 new positive cases on Wednesday, the third time in five days that cases have topped 7,000. The seven-day average of new cases neared 6,000, which was six times higher than it was two months ago.

Wisconsin is doing much worse than its peers and is not flattening the curve, Kaufman said.

"We need to triple down on following public health measures we know will work and if we do that, we will slow the pandemic." - Dr. Mark Kaufman

“We need to triple down on following public health measures we know will work and if we do that, we will slow the pandemic,” Kaufman said. “And if we don’t do that, it will continue to get worse.”

One of the main reasons Wisconsin is behind, he and those on the Wisconsin Health News panel said, is inconsistent messaging from leaders. Tim Sheehy, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said he was “perplexed” with the lack of consistency in messaging and with people not acting with concern over the rising case numbers.

He and the other health leaders all said the consistency of messaging was vital to getting the virus under control.

Evers' attempts to curtail the virus in Wisconsin have been met with resistance from Republicans and the state's business community. His “safer at home" order issued in March was challenged by Republican lawmakers and ultimately struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. His statewide mask mandate, in place since August, is being fought by lawmakers and a conservative law firm. The state Supreme Court scheduled arguments on that Monday.

A state appeals court last week struck down Evers' attempt to limit how many people can gather at bars, restaurants and other places indoors. That was initially fought by the Tavern League of Wisconsin.

Evers and the Republican-controlled Legislature have also not agreed on what steps to take to tackle the virus. The Legislature has not met since April and Evers and GOP leaders rarely talk. Evers said Tuesday that he planned to introduce a package of legislation to address the virus, but did not detail what they would include.

Evers' message calling for unity and vigilance to combat the virus did not resonate with Republican state Sen. Duey Stroebel, of Cedarburg. He represents five counties north of Milwaukee.

“The governor’s speech last night was just a lot of fear mongering in a year in which people have been through so much,” Stroebel said in a statement. "Wisconsin doesn’t need to run and hide, we need to get to work building strong communities and revitalizing our economy while abiding by common-sense precautions.”

As of Wednesday, the Department of Health Services website says the virus has killed 53 people in Washington County, and 28 more in Ozaukee County.

Eric Borgerding of the Wisconsin Hospital Association said he's talking with some legislative leaders about faster discharge of patients who have returned to health, yet may not be able to go back to long-term care housing. He said there's a chance of finding a little bit of common ground at the State Capitol, as new COVID cases are topping 7,000 a day — about equal to the population of Fox Point.

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