Hospitals Make Desperate Plea Before Holiday To Avoid Further COVID-19 Spread

Open Letter To Community Asks People To Avoid Gatherings, Wear Masks

Healthcare worker in a Covid-19 ward at UW Hospital
A healthcare worker in a PAPR hood walks through the hallway inside one of UW Hospital’s COVID-19 units Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Angela Major/WPR

Hospitals caring for COVID-19 patients are making a public, last-ditch plea to Wisconsin residents to heed public health recommendations at a time when the virus is spreading across the state so quickly health systems are struggling to keep up.

With Thanksgiving and the gun deer hunt giving people reasons to get together, doctors, nurses and health professionals are writing open letters asking the community to help control spread of the disease.

Gannett newspapers published a letter from hospital leaders on its op-ed page in online publications last week and the Sunday print edition, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association vice president of communications Kelly Lietz. The letter was signed by physician leaders representing 108 hospitals across the state.

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The letter urged people to take steps to slow a steep rise in cases which has led to concerns about hospital capacity.

“At Wisconsin’s hospitals and health systems, we are doing all we can to treat those who do get sick. However, we can’t prevent you, your family and friends from getting sick and needing medical care. That’s up to each of us individually and all of us collectively. Together, with simple, temporary steps, we can get this dangerous virus under control and get back to normal,” the physician leaders wrote as they asked people to wear a mask, socially distance, wash hands and get a flu shot.

One hospital even took out two full pages in paid advertising in the local Sunday newspaper in hopes of getting maximum attention.

“It’s appropriate and useful at a time when you have to have maximum impact in a very short period of time. So often you’ll see that in politically charged issues, but there are also everyday uses of full page advertising,” said David Wilcox, who teaches advertising at Marquette University where he is a visiting professor.

The open letter from thousands of UW Health nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and other staff appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal. Dr. Ann Sheehy helped spearhead the letter in which she and others collected more than 2,000 signatures in 16 hours. Names continue to be added. As of Sunday night, nearly 3,000 people had signed on, she said.

“We’re all very worried about being able to deliver the care that all of our patients need. And this is not just COVID-19. This is also patients who need cancer care or care for their heart disease or other emergency situations,” said Sheehy, head of the division of hospital medicine at UW Health. “If there’s no change in the community we’re very worried what our hospitals are going to look like in a week or two.”

Currently, Sheehy said the number of COVID-19 patients has remained steady in the seven COVID-19 wards at UW Hospital. However, in northwestern Wisconsin, Mayo Clinic is putting hospital beds in its lobby and ambulance garage after announcing last week that 100 percent of its beds were full.

Hospitalizations across the state are still very high but fell slightly over the weekend, capping a dip in patients that occurred over the last seven days. There were 1,988 COVID-19 people in Wisconsin hospitals on Sunday. That’s a 108 bed decline from last week.

Last Tuesday, Wisconsin health officials reported a record daily high of 92 deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total to more than 3,000 since March. Gov. Tony Evers has expanded the statewide mask mandate and Public Health Madison and Dane County issued an order prohibiting indoor gatherings of any size.

With Thanksgiving potentially creating conditions for a superspreader event, Sheehy is hoping their letter asking for “immediate change” in people’s behavior will have an effect.

“I am hopeful. You never know what’s going to resonate with people if it’s our letter or something they heard last week or a couple weeks ago,” said Sheehy. “I also think that we’ve had some very positive news about vaccines and sometimes when people can see the light at the end of the tunnel it gives you the sense, ‘Hey, we can do this for just a little bit longer.’”