Northeastern Wisconsin Hospitals Are Feeling Strain Of ‘Remarkable’ Surge In COVID-19 Cases

On Tuesday, Oshkosh-Neenah Metro Area Topped National List Of Highest Number New Cases Per Capita In Last Two Weeks

nurses working
Nurses working at Bellin Health in Green Bay. Photo courtesy of Bellin Health

Hospitals in northeastern Wisconsin are being pushed to the brink as the coronavirus pandemic continues to hit that area of the state particularly hard.

As of Monday, Brown County had 10,482 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 69 deaths. Brown County has the highest number of cases in the state, per capita, at 4,035 per 100,000 people.

Dr. Paul Casey, an emergency medicine physician in Green Bay and the medical director for Bellin Health Emergency Services, said the “remarkable” rise in COVID-19 cases is due to “a blatant disregard for following public safety measures.”

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“We thought we dodged the bullet,” he said.

People had a desire to return to normalcy, Casey continued, particularly in rural areas where the virus was much less present in the early days of the pandemic compared to larger cities.

Alongside the desire to return to normal, there has been the return of behaviors that go against public safety measures and can lead to significant viral spread, such as attending large gatherings and most notably, little mask use, he said.

“There’s been remarkable public resistance to wearing a mask because they say it infringes on their constitutional rights and public health be damned. We’re gonna do whatever we want,” Casey said. “That’s what’s driving this remarkable surge.”

Northeastern Wisconsin’s case numbers have been rising for weeks. On Tuesday, the Oshkosh-Neenah metro area is listed as having the highest number of new cases nationally — relative to population — in the last two weeks. Green Bay and Appleton are close behind at number three and four.

On Friday, more than 200 doctors in Brown County urged officials and residents in the Fox Valley to work together to contain the virus and stop the “reckless disregard” of basic public health measures to prevent the spread, like wearing a mask, social distancing and staying at home.

At his hospital, Casey said both the COVID unit and the ICU are at 100 percent capacity. On Tuesday, the hospital shifted into the “red” phase of their contingency plan, which signifies crisis mode and means elective surgeries will be limited.

“Until today, we had still been doing all of our elective surgeries because we have to take care of people,” he said. “We’re having to look at postponing those surgeries to accommodate COVID patients. So that’s what crisis mode means. It means we stop taking care of our usual patients.”

Meanwhile, 190 Bellin Health Systems employees are currently out of work in quarantine because of exposure to the virus in the community, Casey said.

“That’s the other part of the problem,” he said. “If we have hospital beds, we need to be able to staff those beds and take care of our patients. To have 190 workers home on quarantine is alarming.”

Morale is dropping among staff, Casey said. Hospitals are doing their best to support them and keep morale up, but the work is taking a toll, he said.

“It’s hard to wear a PAPR, which is a protective device, for 12 hours … people are getting fatigued, and we’re not even at the height of this current wave,” he said. “It’s a problem.”

People need to understand that everyone can get this disease, and they can spread it without showing any symptoms, Casey said.

“The mask is the single most important thing we can do to help stop the spread of this virus,” Casey said. “And we have to do that even when connecting with close family and close friends.”

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