Health care and community leaders joined today for a virtual meeting to deliver a sobering message: If community members don’t take steps now to curtail the spread of COVID-19, Northeast Wisconsin could face dire consequences.
ThedaCare convened the meeting, which included messages from that organization’s leaders as well as Tom Nichols, Ascension’s vice president of medical affairs; Becky Bartoszek, Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce president and CEO; Judy Baseman, Appleton Area School District superintendent; and City of Appleton Health Officer Kurt Eggebrecht.
The message came as Northeast Wisconsin has emerged as a COVID-19 hot spot. Yesterday, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reported another 2,319 positive tests, and 27 people died in the state.
After seeing a surge around the July 4 holiday, numbers dropped off a bit, only to soar after the Labor Day holiday, the start of school and the beginning of the Green Bay Packers season, which has sent people flocking to bars and gatherings.
“I would say if you have been waiting for the alarm bell to go off, that’s where we’re at now. We’re approaching the last point of making dramatic changes to avoid a crisis in our community,” Nichols said.
Already, Green Bay hospitals have patients lined up in hallways. That soon could happen in the Fox Cities, Nichols said. If the situation doesn’t improve, patients could wind up being transferred to other hospitals, or the state could be called upon to deploy a field hospital on the Wisconsin State Fair Grounds.
Michael Hooker, vice president and chief medical officer for acute care at ThedaCare, said the problem is affecting health care teams at the organization. This week, more than 200 ThedaCare employees missed work because they were sick, exposed to the virus or had to care for family members.
“We need to rally the community to control our community spread, to help protect our health care workers, which are doing a phenomenal job, going above and beyond. But we need to do our part in protecting them so they can take care of us,” Hooker said.
Important steps include continuing to wash hands frequently, maintaining social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, getting the flu shot and wearing a mask that covers both the mouth and nose. Studies show that if 80 percent of Americans wore masks, COVID-19 infections would plummet.
The impacts of the spread of the virus touch all areas of society. Baseman said schools are counting on the community to slow the spread so that kids can return to school safely.
Bartoszek said the pandemic is also hurting businesses and tourism. Hotel revenues are down 52.7 percent, and the Fox Cities and Oshkosh have the second-lowest hotel occupancy in the state. A survey of five area hotels showed that in March, just prior to the pandemic reaching Wisconsin, those properties employed 369 people. As of today, that number has decreased to 132. That also affects room taxes that support the Fox Cities Exhibition Center and Community First Champion Center.
In addition, the percentage of employees working remotely has skyrocketed from 3.6 percent pre-pandemic to 62 percent. Businesses are increasingly worried about liability too, Bartoszek says. Beyond that, if the virus continues to spread rapidly, it will affect workforce and absenteeism.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the combined state chamber, manufacturers’ association and safety council, called on its members and the broader business community today to educate employees about steps that can slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Masking works. Physical distancing works. Good personal hygiene works,” Wisconsin Hospital Association Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Kaufman said during a Wednesday WMC press call. “This is basic science. It’s not a political issue. It should not be a political issue.”
ThedaCare President and CEO Imran Andrabi closed the meeting stressing that the solution lies not in more hospital beds but in community behaviors and taking simple steps to stop the spread.
“I’m sounding the three-alarm fire for all of us. If we don’t do something differently in the next few weeks, we are going to be in a five-alarm fire,” Andrabi said.