Wisconsin's hospitals are reaching capacity and experiencing staffing shortages as the omicron variant of COVID-19 causes cases to surge and unvaccinated patients seek medical care.

At Wisconsin’s largest hospital system, Advocate Aurora, 528 COVID-19 inpatients were being treated Monday in Wisconsin, and that number is growing daily. Five days earlier, Advocate Aurora had 445 COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin.

Statewide, 1,710 COVID-19 patents were hospitalized as of Friday afternoon, the most recent day with data available, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association

Nearly two years into the coronavirus pandemic, with vaccines widely accessible in the United States, unvaccinated people are making up the majority of hospitalizations, said Dr. Jeff Bahr, chief medical group officer at Advocate Aurora.

"This is largely a problem of the unvaccinated," Bahr said Monday. 

About 62 percent of Wisconsin residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and about 58 percent have completed the vaccine series, according to the state Department of Health Services

People not fully vaccinated were hospitalized with COVID-19 at a rate nearly 11 times higher than people who were fully vaccinated, according to DHS. As of Dec. 15, the latest data available, 17.1 per 100,000 people vaccinated were hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to 184 per 100,000 unvaccinated people with COVID-19.

People not fully vaccinated contracted COVID-19 at a rate of about 4.6 times higher than people who were fully vaccinated, according to DHS. Also, as of Dec. 15, the latest data available show 722.5 per 100,000 people vaccinated tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 3,348.2 per 100,000 unvaccinated people. 

Three Aurora urgent care centers in the Milwaukee area were temporarily closed last week and will remain closed through Thursday. The closures are aimed to help manage the COVID-19 surge and staff shortages at Aurora's other facilities. Aurora has 26 hospitals in Wisconsin and Illinois and more than 500 clinics.

The most recent data available shows that as of Sunday, the state had 3,883 new positive cases and the seven-day average was 5,392 — a drastic increase since omicron emerged. On Monday, the state topped 1 million positive cases of the virus.

Bahr said people who test positive for COVID-19 and have minor or moderate symptoms should recover at home.

"If you are otherwise healthy, home treatment, masking, sheltering in place is more than reasonable," Bahr said. "If you are encountering other symptoms such as shortness of breath at rest, that is an early symptom that warrants an evaluation."

Advocate Aurora Chief Nursing Officer Mary Beth Kingston said staffing was a challenge prior to the COVID-19 surge because of the emotional and physical challenges of the job. Now, it has become even harder to recruit and retain nurses.

Meanwhile, Bahr said Advocate Aurora is not turning away patients for routine surgeries or procedures, although some locations and times will have to be changed depending on staffing and bed availability.

"We don’t want to emphasize COVID to the detriment of emphasizing chronic conditions, behavioral health and (health) screenings," Bahr said.

Advocate Aurora has implemented a no-visitor policy

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