One of central Wisconsin's largest health systems is making plans to send some COVID-19 patients home to receive care there.

The measure is the latest effort by Wisconsin hospitals to manage record numbers of new patients as the coronavirus continues to spread out of control. At a press conference Wednesday in Wausau, Aspirus CEO Matt Heywood said facilities at the Wausau hospital are nearly full and staff resources are strained. As a result, he said, the hospital is going to move some patients who would otherwise be hospitalized into home care to "keep our beds available for the sickest of the sick."

That will mean relying on nursing calls and potentially telehealth, Heywood said. They'll also ask patients' family members to help provide care.

"We're going to call upon the community and their loved ones to help us care for these patients," Heywood said.

Aspirus Wausau Hospital is the latest Wisconsin hospital to reach capacity as patient counts spike in Wisconsin. In early November, the Mayo Clinic Health System in western Wisconsin announced that it would suspend elective medical procedures to try to manage its hospital capacities. On Tuesday, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin announced it would accept non-COVID-19 adult patients as part of an effort to take pressure off other Milwaukee-area hospitals.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Wisconsin Hospital Association data showed 2,277 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state, the highest recorded so far in the pandemic.

Hospitals across the state have established dedicated COVID-19 units and have reassigned staff to focus on care for those with the disease. But in addition to the constraint of limited beds, facilities have seen their own staffs affected by the pandemic. Heywood said about 300 workers across the Aspirus system — which includes hospitals in Wausau, Stevens Point and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — are out sick with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases.

"You can't build more beds," Heywood said. "But even if you could, you need staff."

At a press briefing on Wednesday afternoon, Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said one-third of Wisconsin's hospitals are reporting a current critical staffing shortage, and 41 percent of hospitals expect a critical staff shortage in the next week. Hospitals have put into effect their surge plans, and in the past week nine Wisconsin intensive-care units have reached 100 percent capacity, Palm said.

"This is not how it's supposed to be," Palm said. "Our frontline health care workers are doing heroic work, and we are so grateful for their dedication to the health of their communities. They're working extra shifts in over-capacity hospitals and ICUs that are stretched to the breaking point. They are caring for patients with complex needs, and they are saving lives. But they are also seeing intense loss of life."

Central Wisconsin remains among the regions with the highest concentration of COVID-19 infections. As of Wednesday, the Wausau/Weston metro area was among the 20 hardest-hit regions in the nation by population, according to data analysis by the New York Times. Two other Wisconsin cities, Beaver Dam and Eau Claire, were also listed.

Heywood said based on Wisconsin’s recent infection rates and the possibility that Thanksgiving gatherings will drive more infections, Aspirus is expecting even more COVID-19 patients in coming weeks.

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

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