State may have seen COVID-19 peak without big surge, but officials say risk remains

State may have seen COVID-19 peak without big surge, but officials say risk remains

UW Covid Testing 4 (copy)

Incoming patient specimens to be tested for the COVID-19 virus are processed last week at UW Health. Testing capacity must increase before strict social distancing measures are lifted, health officials say.

Wisconsin was expected to reach its peak hospital use in the COVID-19 outbreak Tuesday according to a widely cited forecast, while health officials said this week the state is still “flattening the curve” of the outbreak but was not out of danger.

“We’re not at the surge that’s straining our health care system capacity, but we’re also not at such a small level that we’re safe from having an expanded epidemic,” Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a medical officer for the state Department of Health Services, said Monday.

The state on Tuesday reported 3,555 cases of COVID-19, including 1,049 hospitalizations and 170 deaths. Dane County reported 348 cases and 13 deaths.

COVID-19 cases and deaths

UW Hospital had about 20 hospitalized COVID-19 patients Tuesday, while SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital had about 10 and UnityPoint Health-Meriter had about a dozen, spokeswomen said. Some but not all of the patients are in intensive care.

For nearly a month, the Madison hospitals have postponed non-urgent procedures, which has reduced occupancy and saved protective equipment to prepare for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients. UW is now about 60% full and St. Mary’s is about 55% full, significantly lower than normal for both hospitals. Meriter is at about 50% percent occupancy.

Statewide, hospitals had about 440 COVID-19 patients Tuesday, slightly more than a third of them in intensive care beds, according to a dashboard started last week by the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

About 500 of the state’s 1,400 ICU beds and more than 1,200 ventilators were available, with about 350 patients overall using the breathing machines, the WHA dashboard said.

Wisconsin was supposed to see its peak on Tuesday in COVID-19-related need for hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators, according to a model by the University of Washington. The national peak was Friday, the analysis said.

But health officials say such models are not perfect, given the unpredictability of the easily transmissible new coronavirus, and the state health department has predicted a peak in COVID-19 activity between April 23 and May 23.

The state forecast was made March 26, just after the “Safer at Home” order started keeping most people home to reduce the spread of the virus. Now, the state’s number of cases is doubling every 12 days, down from every 3.4 days in early March.

“We have actually seen a decrease in the exponential growth as a result of ‘Safer at Home,’” said Andrea Palm, health department secretary. “We are flattening the curve.”

Gov. Tony Evers said Monday it’s too early to say whether the “Safer at Home” order, set to expire April 24, will need to be extended.

At a UW-Madison webinar Tuesday, campus epidemiologists said the outbreak could get worse again if strict measures aren’t maintained.

“If (the “Safer at Home” order) is not extended or an alternative, equally effective solution is not put in place, we’re at risk for a second wave of COVID-19,” said Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences.

Until a vaccine or effective treatment is available, cases will likely rise and fall as communities open up or shut down again, Dr. Peter Newcomer, chief medical officer for UW Health, said at another webinar Tuesday organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

“It’s almost for certain that we’re going to have not a geometric model of one peak,” Newcomer said. “We’ll probably have multiple peaks.”

Nearly two dozen labs are able to process close to 4,000 COVID-19 tests daily, and more people are being hired at local health departments to contact people who may have been exposed to others with COVID-19, Palm said. Before the state starts to reopen the economy, testing capacity and contact tracing will need to increase, she said.

“We need to continue to significantly expand our contact tracing capacity to effectively manage this outbreak moving forward,” Palm said.

A plan by the state to buy 10,000 ventilators fell through, but officials are working on a new order for about 1,500 of the machines, she said.

Meanwhile, 14 nursing homes and other kinds of long-term care facilities in Dane County have at least one resident or staff member with confirmed COVID-19, Sarah Mattes, spokeswoman for Public Health Madison and Dane County, said Tuesday. She declined to name the facilities.

The nursing home at Oakwood Village’s University Woods campus on Madison’s West Side last week confirmed four residents and seven workers had COVID-19. Spokesman Keith VanLanduyt on Tuesday declined to say how many people currently had the respiratory disease.

“We have not experienced an increase in numbers since last week,” he said.

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