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Flooded with COVID-19 patients, Ascension-All Saints Hospital is at a breaking point.

Ascension staff told the Racine County Eye the hospital has about 250 beds. They only have the staffing to take care of 100 patients and they had 167 patients on Friday. Of those, 40 to 45 are COVID patients.

The fear is that the highly infectious COVID-19 Omicron variant will create a tsunami of patients that the staff won’t be able to provide care for, which is already starting to happen.

“It’s like a freaking war zone,” the staff member said. “Ascension did deep staffing cuts before the pandemic.”

COVID-19 cases surge

In the emergency room, the census count varies throughout the day. Still, it’s not unusual to see 50 plus people there, including people receiving care and in the waiting room. But it’s been as high as 70 patients at times. 

What’s more, as many as  20 to 30 people are “being boarded” on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room department waiting for a bed to open up – sometimes for days, said an employee who did not want to be named.

The emergency room sees over 70 patients while they are staffed to handle 10 to 15. Last week, they brought that emergency room overnight boarding down by a huge count because there were 14 deaths over four days. 

“One day, I walked through the emergency room hallway. There was an older man in his 80s with an open wound. His wife held a piece of gauze over it, but blood was just gushing out onto the floor,” the employee said.

A staff memo obtained by the Racine County Eye dated Dec. 17 showed staffing needs in answering phones, picking up food trays, sitting with patients requiring constant supervision, cleaning rooms, answering call lights, and providing ambulatory care.  

“They’re not necessarily all COVID. We just can’t take care of people,” the employee said.

Ascension Wisconsin officials acknowledge the stress staff is under due to the increased number of cases and how it has directly impacted their ability to provide care to people. Still, the health and safety of patients remain a priority, according to a statement from a company spokesperson.

“We are confident in our surge planning efforts and want individuals who need emergency care to know they should not delay treatment – a hospital emergency room is still the safest, most appropriate place to receive care,” they said.

State urges Wisconsin residents to get vaccinated, wear a mask

The problem with staffing during the pandemic isn’t just at All Saints. It’s a statewide problem and it will likely get worse over the next few weeks.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake

State health officials warn another surge is imminent with the COVID-19 Omicron variant emerging and action is needed by the public to prevent further hospitalizations and death. This action includes getting vaccinated, getting the booster and wearing a mask.

“We are at a critical moment,” said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. “Hospitals across our state are full. Our doctors, nurses and health care providers are sounding the alarm.”

Case in point, Southeastern Wisconsin, a region that serves just over 2 million people at 31 hospitals in a nine-county area, has a bed availability of 25 ICU beds, one intermediate bed, and 39 surgical beds. Racine County Eye also learned that Ascension-All Saints Hospital remains at a Level 3 surge status due to Racine County’s very high transmission level, which directly impacts their ability to provide care to some patients.

To ease the burden on hospitals, public health officials Monday called on all Wisconsinites to take action to prevent getting the virus, which led to a hospitalization rate of about 5 percent and a death rate of 1 percent. The Omicron virus, which doesn’t make people sicker than the Delta variant, is considered more contagious.

‘Where’s the National Guard?’ 

At Ascension-All Saints Hospital, it’s difficult to respond immediately to patient needs, even during emergencies. At times, two to three code blues go off simultaneously and they don’t have enough staff to respond to them, a staff member said.

“It’s nobody’s fault, per se. There’s just too much. I’m like, where’s the freaking National Guard or something?” said the employee. “But I don’t ever want to give the impression that Ascension doesn’t have good providers. We have outstanding providers. There’s just not enough.”

Timberlake shares the concern over patients not being transferred to an inpatient room.

“That is by definition not the care that any of us would want for ourselves or a family member or a loved one,” she said. “It is a direct result of the capacity pressures that we are seeing in our hospitals from COVID-19 infections, which again, are largely preventable, at least the serious illness and hospitalization is largely preventable through vaccination and mask-wearing.”

State officials have deployed troops from the Wisconsin National Guard. But they serve as temporary nursing assistants at four state mental health facilities, not hospitals. Still, the state is discussing how best to deploy federal resources with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“We’ve had targeted interviews to gauge the availability of those federal resources and the way that they might best be deployed in our state. So we are continuing to make good progress and look forward to having more to say about that,” Timberlake said.

At a breaking point

Families of those seeking care are equally frustrated by the lack of care provided by an overwhelmed and overworked staff.

Curt Meyer, a Kenosha man who hosts a cable access television show called Deadger’s Coffin Classic, received his first vaccine dose just before contracting the virus the week of Thanksgiving. Not breathing well the Saturday after being diagnosed, Meyer went to Ascension-All Saints Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with COVID pneumonia.

Nurses were supposed to put a leg wrap on Meyer’s legs to help with circulation to prevent blood clots. But because they were short-staffed, the nurses couldn’t do it. Meyer developed a large blood clot and a piece had broken off. For days, they didn’t know where in his body it traveled to because they could not do a CT Scan, said his fiance Jennifer Lambert.

Days later, hospital staff took Meyer to the ICU because his lungs just got so bad. They put him on a ventilator, administered a paralytic to put him in a medically induced coma and put him on his stomach.

Lambert asked staff why they hadn’t turned him over onto his back after he was on his stomach for 36 hours. The protocol is 18 hours.

“When I talked to the nurse, she said she had just been so busy with other COVID patients.  I understand that she’s got to be there for them, but they need to be there for Curt too,” Lambert said. “The nurse said that if she went in there to turn him by herself and if he coded or something happened to him, she would have had nobody there to help her.”

On Monday, Dec. 13, doctors told Lamber that her fiancé wouldn’t make it. He died on Saturday, December 18.

“They said that his kidneys and liver were going and his potassium levels were so high that his heart just gave out,” said Susan White, Jennifer’s mother. “They tried working on him for a half-hour. But no matter what they gave him, it wasn’t working.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Why is the Omicron variant a big deal?

Omicron is more contagious than the Delta and the original COVID-19 viruses.

Just how transmissible it is hasn’t entirely been understood. But it is already the most common variant in new infections in the U.S.

“The doubling time (the time for new cases to double) is 3 days as opposed to 2 weeks for delta and longer than that for the original. The U.K. says it is 5X more contagious than Delta but I don’t know what that means, what it was based on,” said Dr. Michael O. Frank, Chief of the Division of Infectious Disease at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

On a positive note, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine does offer protection against getting sick from the Omicron variant.

“I say, get boosted and then don’t worry about it,” Frank said.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com Credit: Nataliya Vaitkevich / Pexels

What you can do to help

To slow the spread of the Delta and the Omicron variant, state health officials urge all Wisconsinites to take the following actions immediately:

  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19, including a booster dose as soon as you are eligible.
  • Wear a well-fitting mask in indoor spaces when others are present who do not live with you.
  • Celebrate safely over the holidays by keeping gatherings small, getting tested before visiting others, and staying home if you have any symptoms.

“To prevent the spread of disease and protect yourself and loved ones this holiday season, we urge Wisconsinites to plan ahead,” said Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. “Keep holiday gatherings small, stay home if you have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, and get tested before spending time with people you do not live with.”

People showing symptoms of COVID-19 need to get tested regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. If exposed to the virus, it is important to get tested five to seven days after exposure. People experiencing symptoms need to stay home while waiting for the results to come back.

For information about where to get tested, state officials say to visit their local health departmentscommunity testing sites, pharmacies, and health care providers. At-home COVID-19 tests(link is external) can also be used before gathering with family and friends. DHS currently provides free at-home collection kits, a type of at-home test, for all Wisconsinites.

“DHS recognizes that this pandemic has caused all of us to make changes to our lives, and our holidays, to protect each other from COVID-19. These are difficult times for everyone, and while we must do our part to protect our physical health, we also need to monitor our emotional well-being. For resources on coping and ways to manage stress, visit Resilient Wisconsin,” the press release reads.

Find a vaccine provider

To find a COVID-19 vaccine provider in your community, visit Vaccines.gov(link is external), or call 211 or 877-947-2211. For up-to-date information about Wisconsin’s COVID-19 response, visit the DHS COVID-19 webpage. You can also follow @DHSWI on Facebook(link is external)Twitter(link is external), or dhs.wi on Instagram(link is external) for more information on COVID-19.

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.