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APPLETON - An already dire situation in the Fox Cities is expected to be worsened by the arrival of the omicron variant in the coming weeks, health officials in the region say.
With hospitals already full and short-staffed amid the current wave of cases, ThedaCare president and CEO Dr. Imran Andrabi told community leaders on a Friday call that the damage the more-transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus could cause has him more worried than any prior stage of the pandemic, even the beginning when COVID-19 was a complete mystery to health care providers.
"If we are the weather service, we are letting you know there's a Category Five hurricane coming at us," Andrabi said.
Omicron has moved quickly since it was first identified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization Nov. 26. Scientists estimate cases in the U.S. are doubling every two to four days, putting it on pace to become the dominant variant of the coronavirus in the country by early January.
Early studies of the variant showed that cases appeared to cause milder disease than other variants, but experts say it's too soon to tell if that's true. The virus is spreading two to three times faster than the delta variant, which was already more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19. Omicron also appears to be more resistant to vaccines than other variants.
Even if omicron cases turn out to cause milder illness, the sheer number of them could further overwhelm hospitals, experts say.
A handful of omicron cases have been identified in Wisconsin, though health officials say there are surely more than detected.
COVID-19 case rates are already high in the Fox Valley region, where the delta variant is still predominant. The area has averaged 325 new cases daily in the last week, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Wisconsin is third in the nation for most new cases per 100,000 people in the last week, according to the New York Times — a number that could quickly increase once omicron takes hold.
Data models project that at least 116 people in the Fox Valley will be hospitalized with complications from the omicron variant in the first few months of 2022, ThedaCare's senior innovation executive Frank Mellon said Friday.
But it's likely to be higher because of omicron's ability to reinfect people who have already had the virus — the upward bound of the model shows the possibility of more than 400 people hospitalized with COVID in the region.
Hospitals across the Fox Valley are already squeezed tight, treating 136 COVID-19 patients as of Friday afternoon, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association data. That number is inching closer to the peak day of last fall's surge, prior to the arrival of vaccines, when 164 patients were hospitalized.
Lynn Detterman, who heads ThedaCare's south region, described dark scenes at the system's Neenah hospital. She said about a third of the hospital's beds are currently taken by COVID patients, the highest percentage they've seen thus far.
"If you think way back to the video footage that the media covered when this pandemic started in Italy and New York City, and you could see these hospitals being overwhelmed, the demand on resources, that's what it's like," Detterman said.
About 80% of COVID patients currently hospitalized are unvaccinated, she said.
But the strain on the healthcare system isn't just affecting COVID patients. Detterman said it's growing more common that people linger in emergency departments after being admitted because there are no open beds elsewhere in the hospital, or at any other hospital nearby. They're unable to take patients from smaller hospitals in the area because there's no space.
Andrabi said ThedaCare surgeons are canceling surgeries often to make room.
Leaders said it would make the most difference if more residents were vaccinated against COVID-19, and for those who have received their first shots to get their booster dose. About a fourth of the Fox Valley has gotten boosted, Mellon said.
Although protection from infection is reduced against omicron for those who received just two shots, a pre-print study out of the United Kingdom found getting a booster dose raises that protection back up to 70 to 75%.
Health officials also are urging people to wear masks again in public spaces, get tested if they're feeling sick and take steps to make holiday gatherings safer.
"You don't want to have an outbreak as a memory for a holiday celebration," said Dr. Mark Cockley, ThedaCare's chief clinical officer.
Winnebago County Health Officer Doug Gieryn said in an interview Friday that people should start wearing higher quality masks, doubling up or choosing N95s, to reduce the spread of omicron.
With the possibility of another statewide mask mandate unlikely, Gieryn said he'd like to see counties band together to issue region-wide mask requirements or stronger recommendations at the least, although he acknowledged that too may be difficult.
"If we could get one in place for just 60 days it could have a meaningful impact," he said. "We certainly aren't going to have 100% compliance, but it could go a long way toward limiting some of the burden we put on our health care system."
Gieryn reported on Friday's ThedaCare call that cases in his county are rising quickest among children, especially among those ages 5 to 14 — groups that have only recently been made widely eligible for vaccination. In a few weeks, he said, schools will have to make difficult decisions about closures to keep kids and their families safe.
He said he worries most that another crush of COVID patients will make health care resources unavailable to those who need them — and that the public, burnt-out from nearly two years of pandemic messaging, isn't seeing the threat ahead.
"It's very clear we're at the edge of a very serious event," he said Friday.
This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: ThedaCare CEO says omicron could further overwhelm Fox Cities hospitals