The Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) hosted a virtual “incident command” briefing on Friday, Nov. 20, to provide Wisconsin legislators and the Evers Administration, as well as their respective staffs, a direct-from-the source report of how COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm our health care system and its workforce in Wisconsin. COVID response leaders from five member hospitals and health systems across the state briefed more than 70 attendees on various challenges they are facing in both rural and urban settings.
The incident command leads from Ascension Wisconsin, Gundersen Health System, Hospital Sisters Health System, Marshfield Clinic Health System and UW Health described the significant challenges they are facing due to rapid community spread of COVID-19.
Among the many challenges panelists shared were issues related to hospital capacity and access to resources. All stressed the toll the pandemic is having on their workforce both physically and emotionally.
"I have been a nurse for almost 22 years, and I've never seen anything like this for this long,” related Ken Nelson of Hospital Sisters Health System in Green Bay. “People are tired in so many ways. We're seeing a lot of burnout, a lot of stress—our own coworkers getting sick, and everyone just picking up for that." Nelson added, "I see the staff working extra hours, staying over shifts, coming in on their days off, getting constantly called in every day. It has been really taxing."
"Our units are full, our resources are scarce, and that means we've had to institute unprecedented measures,” said Dr. Kori Krueger of Marshfield Clinic Health System. "We're starting to run drills on what we will do when we run out of resources.”
Incident command leaders discussed the extraordinary efforts hospitals are taking to add capacity to their hospitals. Over the last several months, Wisconsin hospitals have notified the Wisconsin Department of Health Services of their efforts to increase hospital capacity by more than 1,400 beds over their licensed bed counts on an emergency basis; however, significant staffing challenges remain the largest barrier to being able to care for patients in those beds.
“Since the pandemic started, we’ve added 26% more beds to our facility,” said Beth Smith-Houskamp, chief operations and chief nursing officer for Gundersen Health System. “It takes time, money and effort to expand this much capacity, but this also created a deficit of 75 nurses in one department alone that needed to be filled. While we are managing record numbers of COVID patients, we’ve also experienced the highest census in our history; babies are born, people still have accidents, people still have strokes.”
While Gundersen Health is doing everything it can to manage the significantly increased need for inpatient care, it is also losing staff to virus exposure and infection resulting from community spread. “In the last ten days, we’ve had over 500 staff out on a daily average due to COVID positive or quarantine; primarily due to community exposure and not exposures within our facility,” said Smith-Houskamp.
Dr. Peter Newcomer, chief clinical officer at UW Health, said, “We have a window right now to slow this down before we run out of capacity. Unlike other states, we won’t have the ability to transfer out. We are all running out of capacity together, not just in Wisconsin, but across the Midwest. Help us get through the next few months, so we can get our health care workers and our communities immunized.”
Dr. Newcomer noted that UW Health had 400 providers and staff out due to COVID quarantine and isolation, putting even more stress and responsibility on those able to care for patients in the hospital. WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding closed out of the meeting by calling on lawmakers to take action in support of our state’s health care workforce, reminding lawmakers and staff that the most important priority right now for elected officials needs to be slowing down the spread of COVID-19.
“Lastly, I want to say thank you to the thousands of people who aren’t on this call today because they are in the emergency department, they’re in the COVID wings, they’re cleaning hospital rooms, they’re preparing patient meals and restocking medical supplies and PPE —they are doing everything they can to keep up with this pandemic and keep people alive,” said Borgerding. “We owe them an ongoing debt of gratitude. The best way to say thank you…is to slow this down—not just pat them on the back or take out newspaper ads. It’s time to say thank you to them by giving them a break. And the way we do this is by getting even more serious about slowing down this terrible pandemic that’s only going to get worse unless we act together.”
Borgerding provided specific policy recommendations in a letter
sent last week to Governor Evers and legislative leaders.
Future incident command briefings are being planned to continue educating policymakers about the stark, ground-level impacts of COVID.