ThedaCare at capacity for local hospital beds

Medical center seeks to increase staff so bed capacity can go up
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

ThedaCare Medical Center-Shawano has been at capacity or extremely close to it for several weeks, ever since northeast Wisconsin saw coronavirus cases explode in mid-September.

It won’t get any better, either, unless people take the mask mandate and other pandemic safety precautions seriously, according to Julie Chikowski, vice president of critical access hospitals at ThedaCare Medical Center-Shawano.

The local hospital currently has 23 beds in its facility, with all but four in its medical and surgical unit, and all of them were filled on the afternoon of Oct. 9. Although a couple of patients were due to leave that evening, the increase in cases and hospitalizations likely means those beds will be full again in short order, according to Chikowski.

“Obviously, we’re busy. All of health care is very busy right now,” Chikowski said. “This pandemic has put us into a situation where it’s all hands on deck. Everybody is working together trying to meet the health care needs — all of our community members, all of our patients.”

Personal protective equipment is not an issue, Chikowski said, noting that ThedaCare has plenty of the needed supplies on hand. Despite that, she has more than 20 employees who are quarantined because they came into contact with people who had shown signs or were potentially positive with the coronavirus.

“We have had no exposures here in the hospital to any of our employees,” Chikowski said. “Our employees are reporting that they feel safer at work than they do out in the community and at home.”

The hospital has set up break areas where employees can rest while enforcing the physical distancing requirements of 6 feet or more, according to Chikowski. The facility has hand sanitizing stations everywhere, she said, and mask requirements are being vigorously enforced.

“We are very vigilant about continually cleaning all touched areas,” Chikowski said. “We’ve been very intentional about keeping everybody safe here so that we can continue to provide a high-quality health care experience for everyone.”

Continuous cases of people needing hospitalization have kept the hospital full, with any patients needing hospitalization once it has reached capacity being sent to other facilities outside Shawano for their care.

“We’re at capacity now,” Chikowski said on Oct. 9, “but we’ll probably have a bed available in an hour. It changes constantly. It’s a very fluid type of thing.”

However, there have been good news cases about people recovering. Chikowski noted a patient diagnosed with coronavirus was recently discharged after 14 days of care, and staff members celebrated the discharge by lining the halls.

“We’ve been fortunate to have a number of those,” Chikowski said.

ThedaCare-Shawano is looking at increasing its staff to increase the bed capacity, according to Chikowski, but with so many employees currently out of commission due to pandemic precautions, ThedaCare is trying to recruit more nurses and other staff members to come to Shawano to help.

Gov. Tony Evers recently signed an executive order allowing medical practitioners licensed in other states to work in Wisconsin to battle the pandemic, and Chikowski said that FEMA has sent out an alert seeking practitioners to come to Wisconsin as the Midwest has become the newest hotspot in the United States for the coronavirus.

“We’re hoping we can get some additional assistance — not only with nurses but with respiratory therapists, with CNAs (certified nursing assistants) and in many different disciplines that are needed to deal with the pandemic,” Chikowski said.

The recent resignation of Vicki Dantoin, health officer for Shawano and Menominee counties, is not expected to impact ThedaCare much, according to Chikowski. She noted that she works constantly with the county health department, along with the clinics for the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes, to coordinate efforts in dealing with the pandemic.

Like most other health experts, Chikowski emphasized the importance of washing hands, wearing masks when out in public, maintaining a physical distance from other people and staying home as much as possible.

“We have the ability to flatten this curve,” Chikowski said. “We do not need to be in a health care crisis right at this point in time. We don’t just have COVID(-19) patients. We deliver 270 babies a year. We have people who need surgery and people who have other medical care needs, and we want them to feel comfortable coming to the hospital.”

ThedaCare joined with Prevea, Aurora and the tribal clinics to send out a message to the area chambers of commerce emphasizing the need for the safety measures in the hopes of further getting the word out, according to Chikowski. The local doctors have also made yard signs to spread the message, she said.

With the flu season coming up, the medical center will be taxed even more as the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. Chikowski said the local ThedaCare clinic has been holding flu vaccination clinics and plans to hold even more.

“This is science,” Chikowski said of the pandemic. “This is not opinion. This is proven facts.”