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Milwaukee Hospitals Prep For Possible Continued COVID-19 Surge

Chuck Quirmbach
Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wis.

Some Milwaukee-area hospitals say they're making changes to reduce the risk of the local health care system being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. But there's concern about health care workers being able to stay at their jobs.

The state of Wisconsin reported 4,389 more confirmed COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the number of active cases in the state to 70,205.

The large firm Advocate Aurora Health, which operates St. Luke's, Sinai and several other hospitals, said it is not at capacity. But Aurora Dr. Robert Citronberg said he worries about large gatherings for Thanksgiving triggering another big jump in cases.

"Our health care system cannot absorb double or tripling of those numbers as might happen if we have many of those superspreader events arising out of Thanksgiving,” Citronberg said during a web news conference.

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Chief Medical Group Officer Jeff Bahr said Advocate Aurora has about 500 COVID-19 patients in its medical centers in eastern Wisconsin and another 600 in the Chicago area. He said staff have been redeployed to intensive care and surgical and medical units.

Bahr said later this week his company will take a closer look at cutting in half admissions for elective surgery and other procedures. "Obviously, any urgent or emergent surgery that without doing would result in loss of life, limb or something else, those go on without delay. So, 24/7 urgent and emergent care is available. It should also be stated that anything related to the diagnosis or treatment of cancer will not be delayed,” he explained.

Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM
The Milwaukee Regional Medical Center includes Froedtert and Children's Wisconsin hospitals.

Concerns about a continued COVID-19 surge also have Children's Wisconsin again preparing to accept adult patients through age 26.  The roughly 300-bed hospital made the same offer during last spring's COVID increase, but no adults came in. 

Children's Chief Medical Officer Mike Gutzeit said his site probably won't accept adults with the coronavirus. 

"Initially, we won't accept patients who are COVID-19 positive, unless there are other situations and extenuating circumstances. What we're looking to do is offload the patients we can care for who might have illnesses that we're comfortable with. So, think of chronic diseases like diabetes or some forms of kidney disease. Those are things that generally transfer from pediatrics to adults so there's a continuity," he said.

Gutzeit said the medical system and the community are in unprecedented territory with the spread of COVID-19.

Local health care officials acknowledge that spread continues to put more pressure on front-line workers.  Dr. Citronberg, of Advocate Aurora, said he's concerned about the mental health of those working with patients.

"There was an article in the New York Times [Sunday] talking about physicians who are leaving their practice because of COVID. We know that's true. We know that nurses are doing it, too. If you think back to the first wave, there were balloons, HEROES signs, restaurants were sending food over. People were singing from balconies in honor of all these health care providers. None of those are present now, but everyone's going back and doing their job. It's exhausting!” Citronberg said.

Credit Lauren Sigfusson
This sign was outside Milwaukee's Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Hospital in August.

Advocate Aurora said it's trying to add more agency, or travel, nurses from other parts of the U.S. by the end of Nov. The firm also said it's offering pay incentives, child care, and overnight accommodations for those workers who don't want to go home during the COVID-19 surge.  

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