By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Out of 1,331 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds in Wisconsin, as of December 8, only 37 were available.
There were 1,630 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on December 7, representing an increase of 212 more people hospitalized in the past week, and out of those who were hospitalized, 418 were in the ICU, said Karen Timberlake, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, during a media briefing December 8.
Wisconsin had 3,519 new cases of COVID as of December 8, bringing the seven-day average to 3,155, she said.
The seven-day average for COVID-19 cases has not been that high since December of 2020, Timberlake noted.
All 72 counties in Wisconsin have a high transmission rate for the disease, and the hospitals are nearing capacity, said Governor Tony Evers.
Many hospitals are turning away people who need care or are diverting them to other hospitals, he said.
Healthcare workers in Wisconsin have been on the frontline of treating COVID patients since the pandemic began, and there is no “secondary line” of healthcare workers. There was a shortage of healthcare workers before the pandemic started, Governor Evers said.
One thing people can do to help the healthcare workers and the hospitals — and their family members, friends and neighbors who may be experiencing a health emergency but cannot get the care they need — is to be vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Timberlake and Evers said.
People who are not vaccinated are five times more likely to be re-infected with virus, are 11 times more likely to be hospitalized and are 15 times more likely to die, Governor Evers said.
Many people are suffering from COVID fatigue, “but we can’t give up now,” he said.
Being vaccinated will help the economic recovery, and it will help put the pandemic behind us, the governor said.
State officials are working on finding staff for hospitals and long-term care facilities and have asked for Medical Reserve Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Timberlake and Evers said.
Five teams of 20 people each have been requested.
One reporter asked what the impact will be when there are zero hospital beds available.
In addition to the staffing contract, state officials are working on expanding the training program for Certified Nursing Assistants for long-term care facilities, Timberlake said.
“We are working on doing what we can to prevent (zero hospital beds). It’s a staffing challenge,” she said.
A response from FEMA is expected soon, in weeks, and not months, Timberlake said.
“Everyone needs to do what they can to keep (the situation) from getting worse,” she said.
“Doing what they can” includes being vaccinated or getting a vaccine booster, wearing a mask out in public, avoiding large crowds, staying home when sick, and being tested if you develop COVID symptoms or were exposed to someone with COVID-19, she said.
The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 was detected in Wisconsin on December 4, Timberlake said.
All Wisconsin residents are asked to “stay vigilant,” she said.
At this point, it is not known if the Omicron variant will make people sicker, although there is evidence that it is more transmissible than the Delta variant.
The Delta variant is still the dominant strain in Wisconsin and is responsible for virtually all of the hospitalizations, Timberlake said.
Five laboratories in Wisconsin do sequencing for the SARS-CoV-2 variants, and three more additional Omicron cases had been confirmed as of December 8, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medial officer, DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases.
The cases are being investigated, and contact tracing is being completed, he said.
Not all of those who have been diagnosed with the Omicron variant have a travel history, “so it is spreading in Wisconsin,” Dr. Westergaard said.
The Delta variant is responsible for 99 percent of the cases, and it causes severe disease, he said.
We are in the process of learning more about Omicron “in real time,” Dr. Westergaard said.
One reporter asked whether it was likely Wisconsin would reach herd immunity with 80 percent of the population vaccinated.
Currently, 59.2 percent of Wisconsin residents have had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and 56.3 percent have completed the vaccination series, Timberlake said.
There are no counties in Wisconsin — or in the nation — that have reached herd immunity, Dr. Westergaard said.
“We are far from it,” he said.
Even states out east that have higher vaccination rates than Wisconsin are experiencing surges in COVID-19 cases, Dr. Westergaard said.
Everyone will have to continue to “ramp up” on the mitigation strategies, he said.
“There is not a finish line in sight,” he said, adding that Wisconsin residents should try to manage transmission as much as possible.
There are certain groups in Wisconsin, such as those over the age of 65, that are more than 80 percent vaccinated, and those groups are seeing the benefits with fewer hospitalizations, Timberlake said.
One reporter noted that many Wisconsin residents say they will not wear masks, will not get vaccinated, and have returned to their normal lives and all of their normal activities.
What is the message for those people? he asked.
In many ways, people have been able to return to normal, Governor Evers said.
And people can continue to do more normal activities if they wear masks indoors, remember to social distance and get vaccinated, he said.
If people truly care about their neighbors and whether the hospitals are reaching their limit, “it’s time to do the right thing and be vaccinated,” Governor Evers said.
The state representatives from the Wisconsin Legislature should be doing their part as well and encouraging their local constituents be vaccinated, he said.
“We can’t just let our hospitals go into crisis mode,” the governor said.
And while there is certainly vaccine hesitancy and COVID fatigue, “people can change their minds,” he said.
One reporter asked about boosters for the Pfizer, Moderna and J&J vaccines.
If people received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for their primary series, and it has been six months since their second dose, they should receive a booster, and for the J&J vaccine, people can get a booster two months after their initial dose, Dr. Westergaard said.
People should use what is available to them and can “mix and match” vaccines, he said.
The important thing is that people who are eligible should get a booster as soon as possible, Dr. Westergaard said.
There is no evidence yet whether one vaccine is “better” than another, although all of the vaccines have proven to be effective against hospitalization, he said.
One reporter asked about hospitalizations for influenza.
With more than 400 COVID patients in ICU beds, the hospitals have a very high number of COVID patients, and the overwhelming majority of them are unvaccinated, Timberlake said.
Influenza also causes hospitalization and death, but the hospitals have no more capacity for influenza, she said.
Last year, there was “very very little” transmission of influenza, Dr. Westergaard said.
This year, influenza activity has already started, and there has been an increase over the past few weeks, he said.
Wisconsin residents should also get a flu vaccination because the hospitals have no capacity to treat them if they become severely ill with influenza, Dr. Westergaard said.
The H3N2 influenza virus that is circulating causes more severe disease, he noted.
The mitigation strategies of wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding large crowds and staying home when you feel sick that are effective for COVID also are effective for influenza, Dr. Westergaard said.