Wisconsin COVID hospitalizations, ICU bed shortages rise

Wisconsin is experiencing a shortage of intensive care unit and medical-surgical beds as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise.

Officials with UW Health said the shortage of ICU beds impacts all Wisconsinites – not just COVID-19 patients – because nobody knows when a medical emergency or life-threatening accident may arise.

"Across our state today, only about 5% of beds in our ICU are available and 5% of medical-surgical beds are available," said Karen Timberlake, Wisconsin Department of Health Services secretary-designee.

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State health officials said COVID-19 is to blame for those jarring numbers. 

"The critical care capacity is so maximized that, you know, if your emergency happens at the wrong time of the day and there are no ICU beds within 100 miles of your location, that takes risks with your life," said Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health chief quality officer.

COVID-19 ICU bed

Pothof said COVID-19 continues to put stress on the medical system, and critical care is the worst area for a shortage.

"It’s the hardest to create," Pothof said. "The rooms have a tremendous amount of technology and the staff are incredibly well-trained and skilled, and you can’t just create that out of thin air."

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Pothof said postponing elective surgeries isn't something that will necessarily help because they don't often require ICU care afterward.

"In a way that’s good and in a way that’s more difficult, because it’s not like these ICUs can make more capacity by postponing these procedures," Pothof said.

COVID-19 ICU bed

As of right now, Pothof said, the only solution is for people to get vaccinated.

"We know that if you get vaccinated against COVID-19, your likelihood of taking up an ICU bed in a hospital is really close to zero," said Pothof. "That saves room for those who didn’t have an easy option to stay out of the ICU."

Pothof said he has heard physicians having to call across state lines to see if an ICU bed is available. He also said there is still a backlog of elective surgeries from 2020.

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