Doctor: Area hospitals ‘strained’ due to COVID-19 surge

Health care leaders: ‘Not too late to vaccinate’

GREEN BAY — The alarming challenge for area hospitals and the people who work in them is that, for several weeks now, they have been operating at, or near capacity, due to the Omicron variant surge of COVID-19. 

Fox Valley health care providers and public health agencies held a news conference Monday, Jan. 10, to say that they are committed to providing care for their communities and are asking community members to rally with them once again. 

Dr. Tom Nichols, regional chief medical officer and pediatric hospitalist for Ascension Wisconsin–Fox Valley, emphasized that, because of the infectious nature of the Omicron variant of COVID, area hospitals are ”strained in our ability to meet the needs” of everyone’s health care. Hospitals are filling up, which is impacting not only COVID patients, but anyone else seeking health care, he said.

Ascension is the second largest Catholic health care system in the United States.

“If you’re sick, stay at home,” he advised, and, if you go for a COVID test, stay home until you get the results. He added that social distancing and masking will help prevent the spread of Omicron. He also noted that if a person gets a positive result from an at-home test, it is important to let their own physician know the results.

The Omicron variant may be less severe in how it impacts many people, but it is far more contagious than the Delta variant, said Nichols, explaining that, for every single person infected with Omicron, that person can infect up to 10 more people, which is why it is surging so rapidly. 

Frank Mellon, senior innovation executive with ThedaCare, said projections for this area are that northeast Wisconsin  will see 2,000 cases a day by Jan. 17. “That’s just record numbers for our region,” he said. 

He also emphasized Omicron may not be “as dangerous… but it has a lot of impact on our health system.” Hospital stays are shorter – an average of three days with Omicron with an average of eight days with Delta, he said, but the “sheer numbers” of people with symptoms that require treatment “put different pressures on the hospital system.”

With so many more people seeking care, “The average (hospital stay) doesn’t really do justice to the numbers,” Mellon said. 

Nichols added, “We’ve got people who have been in the hospital for months, so it can be a short period of time and it can be a fairly substantial hospitalization time.” 

He also spoke about the impact that the numbers of people needing care is having on “elective” surgeries, explaining, “for the people getting them, they aren’t elective surgeries.” These surgeries, though “elective,” are for things like cancer, pain treatment and heart disease, he said.

“Every day for the last two years,” said Nichols, has been like putting “puzzle pieces” together for hospitals and has taken “incredible dedication” by staff “to meet everyone’s needs.” 

”It’s really at the breaking point,” he said. 

Lynn Detterman, senior vice president of ThedaCare South Region, pointed out that the Omicron variant increased “sharply” and the hope, she said, is that “it will decline quickly.”

”By a large majority,” it is those people not vaccinated for COVID who are coming to the hospitals, she said. “The surge is the worst we’ve seen,” she emphasized, noting that “our hospitals are full and our wait times are full.” 

“COVID has really weighed on people (who work in the hospitals),” she said, with some people leaving through early retirement or moving on to new careers.

Of the area health care facilities, Detterman emphasized, “We’re all partnering in as many ways possible” to help each other out as hospital beds become scarce. “We get calls all the time from out of state,” she added, looking for hospital beds. “The challenge is (oftentimes) there are no beds to transfer those patients to,” she said.

Dr. Brian Temple, infectious diseases physician at Aurora Medical Center-Oshkosh, said that, as a doctor in the hospital, this is “extremely difficult.”

He painted a verbal picture of what health care professionals are experiencing: People are admitted to the hospital talking and, in a few hours, they are “struggling to breathe,” young people need help getting to the bathroom because they are struggling to breathe; people have to choose whether to breathe or eat.

And, he said, this “is not the only respiratory virus we are dealing with.” 

“Please, please, please, get vaccinated and boosted,” wear masks and avoid large gatherings, advised Temple to protect against this “highly contagious virus.”

Doug Gieryn, health officer with the Winnebago County Health Department, said, “This has been a difficult situation for all of us… It’s not too late to vaccinate.”