Omicron variant taxing Shawano hospital, others

ThedaCare getting creative, implementing new triage system
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is taxing hospital systems in northeast Wisconsin and Shawano’s in particular, but steps are being taken to keep the systems from breaking down completely.

Lynn Detterman, senior vice president of ThedaCare’s south region, said in a Zoom news conference Jan. 10 with officials from Aurora and other health care systems in the Appleton area that the medical center in Shawano is seeing an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases admitted to the hospital and noted that surges in cases tend to hit Shawano a few days before the facilities in the Fox Valley.

“The challenge is there are no beds for those patients to transfer to,” Detterman said. “Shawano is getting really creative and implementing a new triage system in the ED (emergency department).”

Under the triage system, according to Detterman, those with a lower acuity for having COVID-19 could be sent to other locations for services, like an urgent care facility or a primary doctor’s office.

“Only the sickest will be seen in our emergency department, but there is a struggle in Shawano for beds,” Detterman said. “We have so many beds, and we are backing up (patients) into the emergency department.”

Hospital systems in Wisconsin are reporting that 91% of hospital beds are filled as of early this week, and 95% of intensive care beds are filled. According to Detterman, officials with Shawano’s and Neenah’s ThedaCare facilities have been in communication constantly to see if beds are available should the Shawano hospital fill up completely. She said there have been times when patients are “boarded” in the emergency department, meaning they take up a bed there because there is not a regular bed available.

“It is a challenge because everyone is full,” Detterman said. “Hopefully, these steps will alleviate the emergency department and get people in the right place of care.”

Frank Mellon, ThedaCare senior innovation executive, expects that the region will see 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 per day by Jan. 17 with the omicron variant, much higher than the 700-800 cases per day with the delta variant. He noted that the omicron variant is not as dangerous, but it still impacts hospital systems in that the length of the hospital stay is shorter — three to four days compared on average compared to the eight to 10-day average when the delta variant was dominating.

“The length of stay is shorter, so they’re putting different kinds of pressure on the system,” Mellon said. “It will affect far more people in our region; up to 50% of the people could end getting omicron if the predictions hold true.”

Statistics have shown that one in 20 cases of COVID-19 require hospitalization, with one in 100 being fatal, according to Detterman. As a result, those who have to go to the hospital for reasons other than COVID-19 are being impacted.

“Our hospitals are full, and our wait times are long,” Detterman said. “This is coupled with the challenge of the labor shortage that we have across the country, and health care is even more prevalent in that labor shortage because people have been leaving health care over the last two years. Some have retired, and some have chosen different careers, and so that challenge, in addition to the demand on services, is really creating these issues for us.”

The challenge with the omicron variant is that it is much more transmissible than the other variants. Tom Nichols, regional chief medical officer for Ascension Wisconsin, said at the news conference that one person with the omicron variant could infect up to 10 other people, compared with one or two other people with previous versions of COVID-19.

As a result of the impact on hospitals and emergency departments, health officials are urging people not to go to those places for simple testing.

“If you have mild symptoms, please don’t go to the emergency room for that,” Nichols said. “We have primary care physicians, we have urgent care clinics and we have pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens.”