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Amid record COVID-19 cases, Wisconsin National Guard helping nursing homes, hospitals

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Covid Testing

A Wisconsin National Guard member prepares to administer a COVID-19 test to the driver of a vehicle at the Alliant Energy Center earlier in the pandemic.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at record levels, Wisconsin National Guard members have started working at nursing homes to care for residents and free up beds at overwhelmed hospitals, officials said Thursday.

The hospital in Medford, like others, is feeling the strain, with no end in sight.

Through a partnership with Madison Area Technical College, guard members are receiving accelerated training as certified nursing assistants. About 50 guard members started working at six nursing homes this week, with another 80 expected to join in by the end of the month and 80 more in February, Gov. Tony Evers said.

The influx should allow nursing homes to open 200 more beds for residents by the end of February, Evers said. That will help hospitals, where administrators have said they can’t discharge some patients who are ready to leave because nursing homes haven’t had enough staff to accept them.

The help is in addition to the state working with staffing agencies to recruit 626 nurses, nursing assistants and other types of health care workers to support 76 hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In addition, a 20-member team from the U.S. Navy started working at Green Bay’s Bellin Hospital last month, and Evers said he expects more teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“As we continue to see COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge, we are pursuing every available option to bring needed staffing support to Wisconsin’s health systems,” Evers said.

As the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to spread, the state reported a record 13,004 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the daily average to a pandemic high of 9,915. The seven-day average has nearly doubled over the past two weeks and is 50% higher than the November 2020 peak, before vaccines became available.

Statewide, as of Wednesday, a record 2,278 patients were in hospitals with COVID-19, including a record 488 in intensive care, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. All counties had critically high levels of COVID-19 activity, said the state Department of Health Services.

The figures on Thursday declined to 2,219 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, including 479 in intensive care.

The situation also eased slightly in Dane County Thursday, when local officials reported 197 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus, including 37 in intensive care. That was down from Wednesday’s pandemic high of 202 hospitalized patients, which included 43 in intensive care.

As of Thursday, 62.7% of state residents had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 58.6% were fully vaccinated. With 1.7 million booster or additional doses given, Health Services Secretary Karen Timberlake urged more people to get boosted.

At the individual level, omicron may be less severe than previous strains, especially in vaccinated people, but “the risk to our communities has never been more dire,” Timberlake said. “If we do not protect capacity in our health care system by protecting ourselves and our family members from COVID-19, Wisconsinites experiencing medical emergencies may not be able to receive immediate, life-saving attention and care.”

Since the pandemic started, the National Guard has administered about 1.2 million COVID-19 tests and more than 230,000 vaccines. The guard has also assisted medical examiners, staffed a state call center to inform residents of test results, managed vaccine stockpiles and personal protective equipment warehouses and staffed self-isolation facilities.

“We see ourselves as neighbors helping neighbors, and when we say that, we mean it,” Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp said in a statement. “We will continue to assist our state in any way we can because we live and work in these same communities across Wisconsin.”

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