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Medical leaders concerned as COVID-19 hospitalizations, hotline calls rise in central Wisconsin

Published: Jun. 30, 2020 at 8:06 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The medical community in central Wisconsin is concerned as COVID-19 cases continue steadily rising throughout the past month, and a holiday weekend portends more mass gatherings and the potential for reduced precautions. Since March, the north central Wisconsin medical region (hospital emergency readiness coalition, or HERC) has had a total of 539 cases, with 376 of those coming since the beginning of June.

“We’re seeing an uptick in the number of patients coming in with COVID-like symptoms,” said Dr. Steve Phillipson, Aspirus Wausau Hospital’s Director of Medicine.

On June 29, yesterday, two major health care providers in north central Wisconsin say they experienced a record numbers of calls to their hotlines. The Aspirus dedicated COVID-hotline serving central and northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan had a combined 490 calls; Marshfield Clinic’s nursing line covering hospitals in central and western Wisconsin has increased to about 600 calls a day, up from 400-500; yesterday, a record 189 of those were directly related to COVID-19. The rise of calls has started in the past week, according to the providers.

At the Marshfield Clinic system where they’re now running about 500 tests a day, the percentage of positives is at 3-5%, up from about 1% when it was launched.

“We are very concerned as we see increased group gatherings within our communities,” Marshfield Clinic’s registered nurse and VP of Institute for Quality Innovation and Patient Safety Tammy Simon explained.

With 14 hospitalized, confirmed COVID-19 positive patients are also higher than ever before in the North Central Wisconsin health care region, according to data from the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Nine additional patients are pending test results.

“We have more patients in our units than we’ve had in quite some time, and the percentage of people who are infected is much higher than we’ve seen at all,” Dr. Phillipson said. “There are people who are critically ill.”

Cases rising now instead of earlier does mean the hospitals are better prepared, Phillipson noted. Hospitals suffering from shortages of key equipment like personal protective equipment (PPE) have sharply declined since March and April, when health care workers were reusing masks over multiple shifts and WHA data indicated that at times, half or more of the hospitals in the north central region had less than a 7-day supply of PPE—an area served by three major medical providers and sixteen hospitals.

“I think we learned a lot more about how to treat the illness,” Phillipson noted, “And I think we’re well prepared to deal with any increase in disease activity we see.”

In Marathon County, where both the number of cases and the percentage of positive tests continues to climb, the health department’s public information officer Judy Burrows told NewsChannel 7 that contact tracing to contain the spread is both taking longer due to a higher number of contacts to trace and also becoming more difficult as people fail to work with tracers. Other counties and the state’s Department of Health Tracers reports similar issues with rising numbers of contacts.

While cases are continuing to rise in the lower-risk demographic of 20- to 29-year-olds, the medical community says the risk they are spreading COVID-19 without knowing it to higher-risk populations is a grave concern.

“They interact with their parents and their grandparents, and many of those people are highest risk,” Simon said. “They have chronic conditions, heart disease, diabetes—and they are at high risk to end up in the hospital on the ventilator.”

Older patients are the chief demographic in AWH’s intensive care units, Phillipson said. “[Young people] may not have symptoms for the first 2-3 days, and still be able to infect others, go home to their parents or grandparents.”

With the fourth of July holiday weekend approaching and mass gatherings continuing to intensify, doctors fear the worst. They aren’t defining the case increase as a surge like some states are seeing—yet.

“Community spread appears to be increasing,” Phillipson said, noting an absence of masks and social distancing. “I think we could see a larger uptick in illness even from what we’re seeing right now.”

The recommendations remain the same: Wear a mask to protect others in the event you’re an asymptomatic carrier. Stay six feet or more apart. Wash your hands frequently. Avoid large gatherings. And if you’re feeling sick, stay home. Because right now, the trajectory doesn’t look great: When calls to the hotline increase, Simon says, hospitalizations start increasing about two weeks later.

Wearing a cloth face cover can help protect others from germs you may be spreading without knowing it. It may feel...

Posted by Marathon County Health Department on Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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