Madison-area hospitals urge unified fight against surging coronavirus cases

MADISON — Leaders from three Dane County health providers are urging everyone to do their part to prevent coronavirus patients from overwhelming hospitals.

Representatives from UW Health, UnityPoint Meriter, and SSM Health joined Public Health Director Janel Heinrich for a joint press conference Friday morning in Madison, at which they stressed the state is reaching a “tipping point.”

“We’re entering a dangerous time of new cases here in Wisconsin,” SSM Health Wisconsin Region Chief Nursing Officer Veronica Scott-Fulton said.  “Luckily, here in Dane County, it hasn’t been a precipitous increase, however we want to send out alarms.”

Wisconsin has set record totals for confirmed COVID-19 tests in the last week.  The state added more than 46,000 cases in September alone.  About 44% of Dane County’s 10,000 cases also happened after Sept. 1.

Those spikes have led to overcrowded hospitals in the Green Bay area.  Doctors say Dane County ICU and hospital space is still manageable, but could easily become overwhelmed.

“We are perilously close to a time back in April when we had our highest level of hospitalizations in the city and we don’t want to get back to that point because it hampers effective care of all of our patients who need the healthcare system to take them on the way to a speedy recovery,” UW Health Infection Prevention Director Nasia Safdar said.

Safdar stressed a return to measures that worked to slow the disease’s spread earlier in the year can work again: wearing a mask, physically distancing from others, and staying home as much as possible.

All three hospital representatives said their facilities currently have space for more COVID and other seriously ill patients, praising strong contingency plans and emergency preparedness drills, however they said that could change quickly.  Fulton said SSM’s ICU is at about 80% capacity.  Meriter’s Nathan Bubenzer said his ICU is just under 80% full.  Safdar said UW Health is also under 80% full.

Heinrich warned against people congregating for “normal” activities, which she said is still happening far too often.

“A quick search of the words in our contact tracing interviews of ‘Packers’ or ‘wedding’ in the notes indicate that we are creating opportunities, we’re creating opportunities for COVID to spread,” Heinrich said.

Her PHMDC team handles education and enforcement of masking orders.  Heinrich says her latest report shows about 50% compliance.

“We’re not trying to create a system of telling on others, but we want to make sure that we’re providing the education to individuals so they know perhaps how to not have those complaints come in,” Heinrich said.

Doctors urged people to follow those guidelines, get a flu shot, and to quarantine for a full two weeks if exposed to the virus.  Safdar said the virus is showing to be most contagious early on in its progression.

“Which is also some of the times when symptoms start out as being mild and you may not even recognize you have them so, again, I think vigilance is really important, to self-monitor yourself,” Safdar said.