Combination of Delta, flu and Omicron's unknown effects sparks concern for DHS leaders

NOW: Combination of Delta, flu and Omicron’s unknown effects sparks concern for DHS leaders

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Department of Health Services leaders said in a media briefing Thursday, Dec. 2 the Omicron variant has not yet been detected in the state, but they called on people to step up efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and influenza as winter approaches.

"We are actively testing specimens that have tested positive on PCR using whole genome sequencing to detect what variant they are," Dr. Ryan Westergaard, DHS's chief medical officer, said during the briefing. "And as Secretary [Karen] Timberlake indicated, it's virtually 100% the Delta variant."

The Delta variant has continued to spread and put people in the hospital, especially those who are unvaccinated. DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake said those who are unvaccinated are nine times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, with those age 50 and above 13 times more likely to be in the hospital if they are unvaccinated.

Timberlake said 97 percent of intensive care unit beds and 98 percent of intermediate care beds are currently in use statewide.

"These are numbers we haven't seen since last December," Timberlake said.

The concern about hospital capacity is only growing as flu season continues. DHS is encouraging people to get their flu shot to avoid a scenario where the combination of a potentially bad flu season and a worsening COVID-19 situation overwhelms hospitals.

"There's not a lot of extra capacity to go around in a typical flu season," Dr. Westergaard said. "If we have many flu cases, that's going to translate to many people in the hospitals and we really can't afford that."

Westergaard added the state is behind its normal pace of flu shots for this time in the season.

DHS leaders were asked if an alternate care facility will be needed to handle the increased number of patients around the state. One facility was established at State Fair Park in West Allis in October of 2020 and eventually discontinued in February of 2021.

Secretary-designee Timberlake said the state is working to avoid needing the use of a resource like that.

"The kind of brick and mortar capacity is not the problem, we have space for people," Timberlake explained. "What we need to make sure that we can do is have adequate staffing all along that entire continuum of care so that patients that no longer need to be in hospitals anymore can be discharged to post-acute settings, so that people can be managed in outpatient settings and not need to end up in hospitals."

While the outlook for winter is troubling, DHS leaders emphasized there are tools to prevent a current bad situation from worsening. That includes people getting COVID-19 vaccines and boosters as well as their flu shots.

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