Wisconsin breaks Covid-19 records as hospitals brace for flu season

Gabe Gutierrez and Samira Puskar
·3 min read

MADISON, Wis. — Inside UW Health, the Covid-19 units keep growing — and the stress is rising.

"The people we're seeing in here are very sick," nurse Katie Lanoway said. "They are lonely. They are dealing with this alone and it's becoming increasingly harder for us to try to manage, and playing all these different roles: playing the nurse, playing the support person. It's very difficult.”

NBC News received a rare tour of one of thee units, which had previously reached its capacity of 28 beds. It’s currently down to about 20 patients. At first, the unit stretched just one hallway. Now, it’s four.

Image: Dr Gavinski (NBC News)
Image: Dr Gavinski (NBC News)

On Friday, Wisconsin reported a seven-day rolling average of its positivity rate: 22.7 percent. (That’s the percentage of tests that come back positive.) The same rate in New York is currently barely above 1 percent — and even that’s considered risky.

Wisconsin also set several records: most cases in a seven-day period (24,292), the highest average cases per day (3,470) and the highest average coronavirus-related deaths per day (24).

Almost all of the state’s 72 counties now have what public health officials say is a “very high” level of the virus.

“It's terrifying,” said Dr. Katie Gavinski, who started working at UW Health in Madison this summer. “I'm very scared that if this doesn't stop soon, we're going to end up with a much bigger problem come winter and flu season.”

The shifts are taking their toll.

"It's devastating to see someone struggling to breathe,” Gavinski said. “You can see the fear in their eyes. You can see how scared they are.”

UW Health has had months to prepare, putting it in a better position than most. It has adequate personal protective equipment and it has the space to be able to rearrange Covid-19 wards. But if the flu season creates another surge of patients, staffing could be a challenge.

Dr. Jeff Pothof is UW Health’s chief quality officer and an emergency medicine physician.

“What I can’t do by the snap of my fingers is create critical care nurses, create critical care physicians and bring their expertise to the bedside,” he said.

Just across town, the Big Ten conference is set to kick off its college football season Friday night. There will be no fans in the stadium, no tailgating allowed and police plan to enforce rules banning outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people.

Image: UW Hospital Madison (NBC News)
Image: UW Hospital Madison (NBC News)

But health care workers have an urgent warning for those who don't plan to take the virus seriously and will congregate anyway.

"The Badger game this evening does worry us,” Pothof said. “We have a very healthy culture of celebrating the Badgers, tailgating, parties — and if that happens this year, with how much Covid is in our communities, it is certain to cause a super-spreader event. ... We need to celebrate the Badgers, but we need to do it differently.”

Compared to the beginning of the pandemic, there are encouraging signs. Doctors know how to better treat the virus, and an emergency field hospital set up near Milwaukee to relieve pressure on the health system has yet to see any influx of patients.

But there is a sense here that the worst is not over and that flu season on top of a pandemic could ravage this region.

“I think, unfortunately, that it could get really, really terrible,” Gavinski said. “I fear for the reality that I think is coming.”