Area hospitals are feeling the impact from this summer’s COVID surge. Winona Health and Gundersen Health System doctors said their and other regional hospitals are operating near maximum capacity, the delta variant is making some relatively young people gravely ill, and the strain of the pandemic is wearing on health care workers.

Locally and across Minnesota and Wisconsin, COVID infections shot up in August as the more infectious delta variant took hold. Hospitalizations also rose. In Wisconsin, the number of people actively hospitalized for COVID went from 93 patients on July 15 to 804 on August 24, according to the latest Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) data. Eighty-nine percent of hospital beds in Wisconsin are currently in use, and 92 percent of intensive care unit (ICU) beds. In Minnesota, the seven-day average for new hospitalizations rose from 20 patients on July 15 to 74 on August 26. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 93.7 percent of hospital beds in Southeast Minnesota are full.

“We are being inundated with patients, and we are struggling to keep up,” Gundersen Health System Regional Manager Lindsey Styx told the Winona County Board last week as it moved to pursue a mask mandate.

“I think for the most part we’re doing OK. We’re certainly seeing an uptick in COVID cases,” Winona Health Physician Katrina Hammel said in an interview last Thursday. Hammel said that the Winona hospital has been running an average daily census of 21-22 patients out of 33 staffed beds, including eight ICU beds. 

However, Hammel highlighted that several regional hospitals have been on diversion, meaning they were too busy to accept patients. “What we have seen is that the numbers aren’t as bad as they were last November or December. So the actual number of patients isn’t as bad, but the acuity or how sick they’re getting is higher,” she added.

“With the number of COVID patients we’re seeing now, we had to reopen a dedicated COVID unit, and we’ve got half of our ICU beds filled with COVID patients, many of whom are on ventilators,” Gundersen Health System Medical Chief Operating Officer Michael Dolan said in an interview last Thursday. Gundersen’s main hospital in La Crosse, Wis., has been running a census of around 290-300 patients out of 325 total beds. “That’s really busy,” Dolan said. The hospital capped elective surgeries last week. “That is a testament to the fact that it is impacting our day-to-day operations and our ability to take care of patients,” he said.

At both Winona Health and Gundersen Health System, coronavirus patients made up a minority of the hospital census: 25 patients out of nearly 300 in La Crosse and four out of 22 or so in Winona. However, with plenty of other medical emergencies — heart attacks, strokes — that also need immediate attention, the uptick in COVID cases is enough to stretch hospitals, Hammel and Dolan said.

The level of care needed is major factor, too. COVID patients often require a one-to-one nurse-to-patient ratio, as opposed to the more normal one-to-five, Dolan explained. “That requires a lot of staff dedicated to that small number of patients,” he said. Like Hammel, Dolan noted the severity of COVID cases is part of the issue. “They are so sick. And a lot of them die,” he said. “We’ve had to watch a lot of very young people, younger than me, die over the last couple of weeks. I wish people could actually see what it’s like in the COVID unit.”

“If you have one or two COVID patients in the hospital and they’re not in a dedicated unit … that is just everyday, easy for us to take care of,” Dolan said. “But when a 10th of the patients in the hospital are COVID patients and the resources they take, because of the one-to-one and one-to-two ratio of COVID care … that’s where it starts to impact your other operations, because in order to staff that unit, you’ve got to take away staff from other units.”

Staff, as much as beds and ventilators, are a limiting factor for U.S. hospitals. Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz said that staffing challenges have driven down hospital capacity across the country. Dolan described how 18 months of fighting COVID have affected nurses, aides, and doctors: “They are fatigued. We’re definitely seeing the increasing burnout among our nursing and clinician staff that are dealing with the COVID patients day in and day out.”

Asked if he was worried that regional hospitals would be overwhelmed this fall if COVID infections keep climbing, Dolan responded, “I’m worried about that every day. I’m hopeful that the fact that we have much higher vaccinations in our region compared to the Southeast [U.S.] will help.” He added of hospitalizations, “It’s crept up a hair over the last couple of days. I’m hopeful that we’ll just plateau at this level and start to go down in a month or so.”

Hammel said Winona Health could expand its capacity to serve more patients if need be.


Local COVID infections remain high

COVID transmission remained high but relatively stable in Winona County this week, with 161 new cases in the past seven days, on par with 157 last week and up from 122 the week before, according to MDH.

New infections were also stable in Buffalo County, where there were 25 new cases this week, down from 26 last week, according to DHS.

However, COVID cases spiked again in Trempealeau County, with 102 new infections this week, double last week’s 49.

There was one new hospitalization each in Trempealeau and Buffalo counties and zero in Winona County, county health departments reported.