As COVID cases, hospitalizations rise in Wisconsin, frontline health care workers share 'genuine message of care and concern'

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Wisconsin is seeing its highest number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since the spring, and the current uptick is fueling fears among the state's frontline health care workers that a continued trend of spread of the Delta variant and low vaccination rates will lead to another fall surge similar to what occurred in November of 2020.

"I think we're definitely discouraged as health care providers," Maddie Weitz, a nurse at UW Health University Hospital's Covid unit, said. "It's been a long -- nearly two years that our unit has been working with Covid patients."

The number of hospital beds designated specifically for COVID-19 patients has drastically reduced since last fall. Along with the drop in cases, the arrival and availability of the vaccine sparked optimism among University Hospital staff. But the recent spike has been a blow to morale.

"It was kind of upsetting when numbers came back up," Weitz said. "All that progress that we had made and the vaccine coming out, all that hope that we had for people to be vaccinated, it all comes crumbling down a little bit."

The worry surrounding the rise in cases and hospitalizations driven by the more contagious Delta variant and unvaccinated people is amplified by the approaching fall season in which outdoor activities are limited and people gather indoors more often.

"I have a lot of concerns about fall approaching," Dr. Ann Sheehy said. Sheehy is the division head of hospital medicine at UW Health and has recently been working the night shift.

With colder weather on the horizon, Sheehy is hopeful an increase in vaccination rates will prevent the fall and winter from creating a scenario where hospital resources are stretched.

"I think this is really our chance to get everybody vaccinated as we can so that we are safer and being indoors is safer," Sheehy said.

For UW Health's leaders, there's recognition that case and hospitalization numbers are not what they were a year ago, but the similarity in trends is troubling.

"With cases going up, percent positivity going up, now hospitalizations going up, this is a bit of a déjà vu moment for us," Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health's chief quality officer, said. "And it gets us really worried because what we don't want to see is a continuation of that trend, so we're doing the same thing this fall that we were doing last fall."

Pothof said the hospital does feel better prepared having learned lessons from last year and is getting ready in anticipation of more Covid patients in the coming weeks and months.

"Now that the cadence is increasing a little bit, you're starting to see maintenance workers up here starting to change the ventilation in the rooms to make them negative pressure so that they can accommodate a Covid patient," Pothof explained. "We're starting to take action if our numbers continue to increase."

More than 90 percent of patients being treated for Covid at University Hospital are unvaccinated, a trend reflected across the state and across the country. The statistic highlights the impact and effectiveness in the vaccine in preventing severe illness.

"For as many people that aren't vaccinated, there are a lot of people who are vaccinated," Pothof said. "And that's going to make a big difference this year and that's something we didn't have last year."

Currently, a little more than 52 percent of the state has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Department of Health Services. The vaccine has proven to be highly effective against the virus, including the Delta variant. But the virus' spread in the state is prolonged by eligible segments of the population not getting the vaccine, which has led to the reemergence of mask requirements and other mitigation efforts. Pothof said an increase in the state's vaccination rate can help put the pandemic behind.

"If you want life to get back to normal, if you're hearing about mask mandates and you're frustrated, 'well why is this happening?' if you're unvaccinated, you got to look in the mirror, because that's why it's happening," Pothof said.

Pothof said unvaccinated patients in the hospital often share one of two reactions. The first being of regret.

"Usually the regret is, 'I can't believe I let myself be misled by information that clearly wasn't true, now I'm experiencing it, now it's real and I wish I had a do-over but I don't,'" Pothof said.

The other reaction is of denial.

"To the moment that we put them on a breathing tube and on a ventilator, they are so convinced, they've been so misled that they can't possibly believe that this is real," Pothof explained.

Health care workers at University Hospital all said misinformation is a major hurdle in increasing vaccination rates, but want people to have the facts in order to prevent more needless suffering.

"We hope that as health care providers, people understand that we have no agenda other than wanting people to survive this pandemic and hope that this is a genuine message of care and concern," Dr. Ann Sheehy said.

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