On a day when Wisconsin hit a new record of 7,497 new COVID-19 cases, ThedaCare leaders once again led a community conversation that painted a grim picture of what’s to come for the region if it does not get transmission under better control.
The region’s positivity rate is hovering around 35 percent. “I will say that if you follow the national news, a positivity of 35 percent is simply astronomical,” said Frank Mellon, senior innovation executive for ThedaCare.
Mellon said modeling shows the region may have reached the peak for the foreseeable time and the number of positives may decrease gradually, but that doesn’t mean that changes in behavior couldn’t lead to another surge. “What we’re seeing right now is a plateauing, but, again, at a very high level.”
The region is seeing about 500 new cases per day. The death rate also remains high, with the region seeing a record number of deaths in one week, Mellon said. Deaths are disproportionately affecting minorities, with a death rate of 11 percent among Black patients and 8 percent of Hispanic patients.
Mark Thompson, chief operating officer for ThedaCare, said that beyond caring for COVID-19 patients, ThedaCare hospitals still have to care for heart attacks, cancer, strokes and traumas. On top of normal patient demand for services, ThedaCare facilities are treating 70 to 80 patients with COVID-19 on any given day.
On a typical day, ThedaCare hospitals are running at 95-plus percent capacity, and managing the situation has become increasingly difficult and time-consuming, Thompson said. “Ninety-five percent capacity is an unheard-of percentage of throughput. I’ve been in this for 42 years. I’ve never seen this type volume come through the facility.”
Amidst the challenge, ThedaCare sees an average of 170 staff members absent due to COVID-19 on a typical day, and one-third of those are nurses. Those working with COVID-19 patients say they feel safer on the job than in the community, given how widespread the virus has become, Thompson said. Of those getting sick, 7 percent of infections happen in the hospital and 93 percent happen in the community.
With the virus widespread throughout the region, ThedaCare is expanding testing access throughout the area it serves, including rural communities. Click here to see upcoming mobile testing days and sites in Shawano, New London, Waupaca and Wild Rose.
David Brooks, infectious disease specialist, discussed myths around COVID-19. He stressed that the disease does not treat everyone equally. Around 21 percent of people have minimal or no symptoms, and they’re at risk of transmitting the virus. The largest group of those getting hospitalized are older, more vulnerable populations. The death rate in our region “has continued to soar,” he said.
“I think there’s a common myth that young people are relatively indestructible with COVID, but that’s not necessarily true,” Brooks said. “Ten percent of these deaths — 229 — were among people ages 20 to 59.”
Brooks said masking and social distancing remain vital. As for herd immunity, he said it’s not yet clear what makes a person immune to future infections or how long that immunity lasts. It would take 70 percent of the U.S. population to reach a herd immunity threshold, and we’re not even close to that, he said.
“There doesn’t appear to be any benefit to letting this infection run wild and to letting the population get to herd immunity. In doing that, we would overrun the hospitals and the hospitalization rates would soar,” Brooks said.
Neenah Joint School District Superintendent Mary Pfeiffer talked about the toll the virus is taking on schools, and Doug Gieryn, director/health officer for the Winnebago County Health Department, said most districts are facing critically high infection level rates.
Pfeiffer said the district, which has strived to keep its schools open, is shifting to an all-virtual setting after Thanksgiving and the first week in January in anticipation of people gathering at higher rates.
The best teaching and learning take place in person, she said. “This is a community issue, and all of us know that. We all need to be better at following safety protocols, as simple as they may seem.”
The community, as a whole, hasn’t change habits effectively enough, Pfeiffer said. She expressed concern about creating a lost generation of students who miss out on social and emotional engagement, leading to problems include depression, anxiety and suicide.
Katie Harris, a nurse with ThedaCare, her voice often breaking, shared what it’s been like to care for COVID-19 patients, including holding the hands of many dying patients. “It’s been exhausting. It’s been tiring for all of us, but we’ve really pulled together, and we just need the community to pull together as well, to continue to mask, continue to reinforce the social distancing, and washing of your hands and your basic infection prevention.”