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First Wisconsinite received COVID-19 vaccine one year ago; data shows pandemic is far from over

COVID-19 coronavirus hospital nurse
Posted at 4:50 PM, Dec 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-14 19:20:45-05

Tuesday marks one year since the first person in Wisconsin received a COVID-19 vaccine, but a rising number of new coronavirus cases and few ICU beds in Northeast Wisconsin indicate the pandemic is far from over.

According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, 98% of ICU beds in Northeast Wisconsin are filled.

"We stay at or near capacity most of the time," said Ken Nelson, HSHS chief nursing executive.

Nelson oversees nursing for six HSHS hospitals across Wisconsin. The latest data from HSHS shows 218 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 across the system's 15 hospitals in Wisconsin and Illinois, which includes HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center in Green Bay. Fifty COVID-19 patients are in the ICU. The majority are not vaccinated.

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Although ICU beds across Northeast Wisconsin are nearly full, the number of COVID-19 ICU patients is trending down. The WHA reported a peak of 52 COVID-19 ICU patients on Nov. 28, a 42% decrease to Monday's number of 30.

"We are seeing very high ICU numbers and it's not just COVID patients: It's every other thing that people have, whether it's strokes, heart attacks, traumatic injuries, things like that. Part of the balancing here with the increase in COVID numbers is we still have many other patients to take care of and there's only so many beds to be able to do that," Nelson said. "Our team is putting in long hours, extra hours, and I can't thank them enough for all their hard work to make that happen."

Data shows a different story in the Fox Valley, where zero ICU beds are available. The number of COVID-19 ICU patients has been increasing since Nov. 5, with 31 ICU patients as of Monday. The total number of COVID-19 patients in the Fox Valley has been rising for almost a month and a half, with 143 people hospitalized.

An Ascension Wisconsin spokesperson said the system is experiencing this increase across its three Fox Valley region hospitals in Appleton, Oshkosh, and Chilton. As of Tuesday, the system reports 39 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across its three Fox Valley region hospitals. Most of these patients are not vaccinated.

"There's still a lot of our population that's not vaccinated and so we're feeling that at the hospital level, at the facility level, all the health systems," said Dr. Gregory Brusko, Ascension Wisconsin chief clinical officer. "Yes it would be a lot worse if we did not have a vaccine right now, but it certainly could be better right now too, because we don't have enough people vaccinated."

Brusko said while COVID hospitalizations are going up, there are other factors driving up capacity right now.

"A lot of folks put off care; chronic disease care, acute care, et cetera, and a lot of those community members are now coming back in," Brusko said. "So we're seeing sort of a surge, if you will, of delayed care that folks are coming in to get now. That's a whole other component on top of the everyday business that we all do."

Brusko said staffing shortages across healthcare systems are another contributing factor: Fewer people to provide care means few beds can be used at one time.

So what can people do to improve the situation? Brusko said more people need to get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot.

"That's the best thing that anybody can do to prevent death, hospitalizations, and certainly prevent severe illness," Brusko said.

Around 8.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered across Wisconsin since the start of the pandemic, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Data shows about 61% of Wisconsin residents received at least one dose of the vaccine and just over 57% completed the series.