Clarification: A previous version of this story was unclear as to how Marshfield Clinic Health System is handling its intensive care units reaching capacity. Marshfield Medical Center is not accepting transfers from facilities outside its nine-hospital network.
MARSHFIELD – There are only two ICU beds available in Wisconsin’s north central region as of Tuesday out of 125 total, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association.
The association also reported only 80 intensive care unit beds available in the entire state, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge due to the highly contagious delta variant. On Oct. 4 alone, there were 1,933 new cases statewide.
On Friday, Marathon County — the largest in the 12-county region — reported 155 new COVID-19 cases, the highest rate since Nov. 18.
Marshfield Medical Center— a hub for the region and the only children’s hospital outside of Madison and Milwaukee — has seen COVID-19 cases continue to climb over the past few months.
On Monday, the Marshfield Clinic Health System hospital had 43 COVID-19 patients, 14 of whom were in the ICU, maxing out its capacity. All 14 patients were on ventilators and unvaccinated, said John Gardner, a spokesperson for the system. As of Wednesday, the hospital had one pediatric COVID-19 case.
Aspirus Health, another system in the region, had 89 COVID-19 patients as of Friday, spokesperson Andrew Krauss said. Of those, 29 were in the ICU and 67 were not fully vaccinated.
Tammy Simon, vice president of Marshfield Clinic’s Institute for Quality Innovation and Patient Safety, plays a leading role in the system’s COVID-19 response and said she is very concerned.
She said unvaccinated patients winding up in the ICU is “definitely a theme.”
“We are super concerned for community members not masking and not vaccinated,” Simon said. “It’s alarming. The state has never been in this situation. This is much worse than what we saw last fall in the previous surge.”
Like other large facilities across the state, the Marshfield hospital has to balance the strain from COVID-19 with the number of incoming trauma patients and those with other illnesses, she said.
As a result, the health system is at maximum capacity, Gardner said. The hospital has taken calls from other health systems — both within and outside Wisconsin and even from Canada — to send patients to Marshfield’s COVID-19 unit, but Marshfield is unable to take on any more patients from outside its own network of nine hospitals.
“We certainly don’t want to turn people away … but we’re getting calls from all over to take patients and we haven’t been able to take any of them,” he said.
“If we can’t take a patient from another hospital or health system, we will decline the transfer,” Gardner said. “However, if a patient presents in our emergency department, we will certainly accommodate them and find space within the hospital to care for them.”
Simon said Marshfield Clinic, along with other Wisconsin health systems, are frequently communicating with health systems in Minnesota and Michigan.
While capacity fluctuates hour by hour, Simon said the number of beds isn’t the issue — it’s whether they have enough staff to take care of incoming patients.
Hospital staffing shortages aren’t unique to northcentral Wisconsin; across the state, health systems are offering enticing bonuses, desperate to bring on new permanent workers. But the longer the pandemic drags on, the harder it is for frontline health care workers “to sustain,” Simon said.
“We are super concerned about our staff and providers, as they are getting very fatigued,” she said. “It’s an unprecedented time.”
The health system’s smaller Weston medical offices have 11 COVID-19 cases as of Monday. Only two of those patients are vaccinated, Gardner said. Three patients are in the ICU, and 10 have oxygen support.
Simon said another trend is COVID-19 patients waiting too long to come into the hospital.
“Once they hit our COVID unit … we’re seeing patients decompensating fast, and then they have to go to the ICU,” Simon said.
She urged those in the region to continue to wear masks, distance themselves from others and get vaccinated if they haven’t. She said Marshfield Clinic, other health systems, pharmacies and chain drug stores all have plenty of vaccine available.
“Please, please mask and get vaccinated,” Simon said. “We are starting to see pediatric patients. There is a way we can control this.”