COVID-19 surge strains Wisconsin hospitals' capacity, officials say

Wisconsin health leaders said Tuesday, Sept. 29 that the state is closer than it has ever been to exceeding hospitals' capacity to care for COVID-19 patients.

If that were to happen, a Wisconsin State Fair site would be used as an overflow facility for patients -- able to be up-and-ready in less than one week. If that happens, though, officials said we've waited too long.

Andrea Palm, Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) secretary-designee, on Tuesday gave an urgent warning.

"Make no mistake, this is serious, we are at a critical time here in Wisconsin," said Palm.

As Wisconsin continues to see a spike in COVID-19 cases, the DHS on Tuesday reported 2,367 new cases and 17 new deaths -- the most deaths in a single day since the end of May.

"This fundamentally stems from the ruling in mid-May. We've seen a slow burn that never reached a low enough level which never got us comfortable to help mitigate," Palm said. "Then with the return to campus and impact on campus communities and wider transmission to other age groups across the state."

The surge in cases is taking a toll on an already strained health care system. 640 people were hospitalized for coronavirus-related reasons from Sunday into Monday, Sept. 28 -- another grim milestone since the pandemic began. The previous hospitalization peak, 440, was seen in April, according to Dr. Ben Weston with the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

"More severe cases are on the rise," said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer with the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

Facilities in northeastern Wisconsin are especially close to reaching capacity.

While adequate space and resources are a concern, the main issue stems from health care staffing shortages.

"That's because people get sick and have to stay home when they do get sick," said Westergaard.

Gov. Tony Evers, once again, urged residents to stay home or mask up if they do go out.

"No party, no bar is worth it. We owe it to those struggling with the loss of a loved one, those working in a health care facility, caring for the sick and most vulnerable neighbors to do the best we can to stop the spread of this virus," said Gov. Evers.

According to Palm, the state's seven-day average of new daily cases now stands at 2,255 -- up from 684 one month earlier.

Milwaukee is currently faring better than the rest of the state with only a slight uptick in cases. Eight percent of tests are positive, up from roughly 5% a few weeks prior. Statewide, for the last four days in a row, more than 20% of tests have been positive.

"I know many folks have COVID fatigue, but we have to remember there are some things we can do to keep ourselves safe," said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. "That's to remember the three 'Ws' -- wear a mask in public, wash your hands and watch your distance."

Officials said people from 18-24 years old had been responsible for a major uptick in cases earlier this month. Now, officials say, other age groups are gaining momentum.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Get breaking news alerts in the FOX6 News app for iOS or Android.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) is also working with the state to develop contingency plans. 

One option to increase space is to postpone elective hospital procedures. The good news, WHA says, is that there is not a concern of a shortage of ventilators in the state.

DHS: 2,367 new positive cases of COVID-19 in WI; 17 new deaths

State health officials reported 2,367 new positive cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin Tuesday, Sept. 29, and 17 new deaths.

Few Wisconsin residents have COVID-19 antibodies, study finds

The testing was done before the surge in cases, which have made Wisconsin the third-highest per-capita in positives over the past two weeks.

How can I volunteer for a COVID-19 vaccine study?

How can I volunteer for a COVID-19 vaccine study?