WisContext: The Urgent Battle To Flatten Wisconsin’s COVID-19 Curve


Over the course of a single historic week, each day life in Wisconsin and throughout a lot of the US floor to a halt as a harmful new virus arrived in communities throughout the nation. A flurry of shutdowns raced to maintain up with the unfold of COVID-19 and the rising realization of its looming human affect.

College buildings in Wisconsin closed indefinitely as lecturers scrambled to maneuver classroom instruction on-line. Concert events and sporting occasions have been canceled or postponed. Church companies have been suspended and weddings halted. Bars, eating places, malls and film theaters went darkish. In a matter of days, freeways and buses sometimes clogged throughout rush hour have been almost empty as commuters stayed dwelling, some to work remotely and others out of a job.

A inhabitants of almost 6 million largely withdrew from public life to attend out the outbreak of COVID-19 whereas hunkered down at dwelling.

This new, seemingly sedate world belied a frenzy of exercise inside Wisconsin’s hospitals and medical clinics. That is as a result of as quick because the shutdown appeared, the concern spurring it’s that the novel coronavirus is shifting sooner, maybe a lot sooner. And Wisconsin could have bother catching up. In order employees and faculty youngsters deserted routines, anxious docs and nurses, respiratory therapists and lab technicians rushed to arrange for an onslaught of significantly sick and extremely contagious sufferers.

“It is form of frantic,” stated Dr. Nasia Safdar, chief medical officer for an infection management on the College of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, as she described the temper amongst her hospital’s employees on Monday, March 16, solely days after a lot of Wisconsin embarked upon a prescription of social distancing.

On the time, Safdar stated the hospital was treating “a quantity” of sufferers suspected to have COVID-19. The brand new respiratory sickness is attributable to a kind of coronavirus that emerged within the metropolis of Wuhan, China in late 2019. The virus has since swept the globe with devastating penalties for public well being and each day life in dozens of countries.

A majority of people that contract the virus have gentle or average signs, however about one in six have been discovered to develop severe sickness that requires hospitalization. The aged and other people with preexisting well being circumstances are at greater danger of significant problems. A small however important share die from COVID-19, with the danger of loss of life typically rising with age.

Regardless of the hospital employees’s suspicions, Safdar stated none of UW Hospital’s sufferers had but been confirmed to be contaminated with the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, as a backlog of specimens waited to be examined. An ongoing scarcity of COVID-19 testing provides has created a serious bottleneck in testing as demand outstrips provide.

Over the course of the week that a lot of Wisconsin shut down, the variety of confirmed circumstances of COVID-19 within the state ballooned from a couple of to effectively over 100.


This sharp enhance of COVID-19 circumstances in Wisconsin mirrored these reported in states throughout the U.S. and occurred amid a backdrop of more and more dire outbreaks in locations like northern Italy, central Spain and the Pacific Northwest. With these experiences in thoughts, Safdar stated UW Hospital employees have been steeling themselves for the inevitability of not just some however fairly an all-but-certain flood of sufferers with severe sickness.

On the similar time, Safdar expressed confidence that the preparations underway on the hospital would assist guarantee its potential to successfully look after sufferers within the coming months in all however the bleakest eventualities.

“It might be if that is very extreme, we will not be adequately ready for the worst attainable situation,” she stated in a March 13 interview on PBS Wisconsin’s Right here & Now. “However for what we predict is more likely to occur,” she added, “I can say we really feel we’re ready.”

Safdar added a caveat when she subsequently spoke with WisContext three days later.

“Now we have a progressive plan in place,” she stated. “However capability might change into a difficulty.”

Fears over the American healthcare system’s capability to securely look after a deluge of critically sick COVID-19 sufferers lie on the coronary heart of the more and more restrictive public well being measures throughout the nation. In Wisconsin, these actions embody a ban on nearly all public gatherings and pleas from state officers for residents to stay of their properties apart from important wants.

“What we’re saying right here of us is solely to simply keep dwelling in the event you can,” stated Gov. Tony Evers throughout a March 17 press convention alongside the state’s high well being officers the place he introduced a ban on gatherings of 10 or extra folks. The ban and closures of faculties and plenty of industrial companies adopted the governor’s March 12 declaration of a public well being emergency for all the state.

Slowing the unfold

Motivating these pleas and directives is the public-health truism that minimizing bodily interactions by means of social distancing is one of the simplest ways to sluggish the unfold of infectious respiratory illnesses like COVID-19.

“It’s a elementary precept of outbreak management to sluggish transmission,” stated Dr. Patrick Remington, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus on the College of Wisconsin-Madison College of Medication and Public Well being.

Slowing the unfold of COVID-19 is of chief concern with a purpose to present valuable time to the hospitals getting ready for sufferers. Public well being authorities and clinicians are pursuing steps to restrict the pressure on the nation’s and Wisconsin’s hospitals by decreasing the velocity at which significantly sick sufferers require hospitalization.

Within the case of COVID-19, earlier than steps are taken to sluggish its unfold by means of social distancing, the variety of circumstances in a newly impacted area has tended to rise exponentially. When an outbreak progresses on this method, there’s typically a quickly rising variety of new circumstances for a sure time frame, usually as a lot as doubling daily. However social distancing may also help flatten that development curve, ideally to a degree the place the variety of circumstances at any given time doesn’t exceed a well being system’s capability.

This concept is named “flattening the curve.” A graphic depicting this dynamic has change into emblematic of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the time period has entered huge parlance nearly in a single day. Often known as “neighborhood mitigation,” the idea was defined in a 2007 paper about pandemic planning printed by the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention. It is epidemiology 101, Remington stated, and immediately linked to social distancing.

Scott Stetson/PBS Wisconsin

Uncontrolled unfold of a extremely transmissible respiratory virus just like the one which causes COVID-19 usually leads to an ever rising variety of new infections as an outbreak shortly reaches its peak, doubtlessly overwhelming medical capability. When a majority of individuals participate in protecting measures reminiscent of social distancing and correct hygiene, the expansion curve of latest infections turns into much less steep, or flattens. The general public well being aim of those protecting measures is to unfold the illness’s affect out over an extended time frame, and thus scale back the pressure on the well being system at any given time.

The swift embrace of social distancing mandates to sluggish the unfold of COVID-19 amongst European and American officers coincided with the March 16 publication of a examine led by epidemiologist Neil Ferguson at Imperial Faculty London.

Utilizing obtainable knowledge in regards to the virus’s transmissibility and fatality price, the examine’s authors projected woefully overwhelmed well being techniques and as many as 510,000 deaths in the UK and a couple of.2 million deaths within the U.S. from COVID-19 if the nations did little to manage its unfold. Even with substantial social distancing, the examine projected a big pressure on hospitals.

One other manner to have a look at the problem is thru the idea of provide and demand. Social distancing is meant to reduce demand for medical sources. Nonetheless, there’s nonetheless the matter of their provide.

Underscoring the potential vulnerability of the well being system to COVID-19 is that this determine: in keeping with knowledge maintained by the Wisconsin Division of Well being Providers, the state has about 3.1 hospital beds per 1,000 residents. This quantity varies across the state, from zero beds per thousand in 9 largely rural counties that do not have hospitals to greater than eight beds per thousand in Wooden County, dwelling to the Marshfield Clinic.


The state’s most populous county, Milwaukee, has about 5.1 beds per 1,000 residents. Dane County’s quantity is nearer to the state common, at 3.4, whereas Monroe County, dwelling to a big Veterans Administration hospital in Tomah, has 6.4 beds per 1,000 residents. Many border counties have decrease figures, partly as a result of residents usually cross state boundaries for care at close by hospitals.

In Italy, the place a couple of hundred circumstances of COVID-19 exploded into greater than 35,000 in a matter of weeks, overloading intensive care items and forcing docs to restrict remedy to just some sufferers, the variety of hospital beds per 1,000 residents is 3.2, in keeping with the Organisation for Financial Co-operation and Improvement.

There are various variables that complicate comparisons between Italy and Wisconsin, however at a elementary degree of capability to reply to COVID-19, the variety of present hospital beds in Wisconsin is a serious trigger for concern for healthcare professionals on the entrance strains and public well being consultants alike. Of even better concern is the variety of intensive-care beds.

There are roughly 2,500 ICU beds within the state, in keeping with Andrea Palm, Secretary-designee of the state Division of Well being Providers. Palm shared the determine in a March 20 convention name with members of the media, including that she didn’t know what number of have been free on the time.

“The variety of staffed, acute care beds has gone down through the years,” Remington stated. That stated, this lower might point out some doubtlessly optimistic facets of well being in Wisconsin, he famous.

“For those who maintain folks out of the hospital, you are holding them wholesome,” Remington stated. “The issue is: Do we’ve the capability to open these again up?” he requested. “That I do not know.”

A rush to maximise hospital capability

Hospitals throughout Wisconsin have been busy making an attempt to broaden capability by liberating up beds by means of canceling elective procedures. They’re additionally determining easy methods to look after an inflow of COVID-19 sufferers whereas additionally treating all of their different sufferers.

“There is a sense of urgency for positive,” stated Dr. Michael Landrum, an infectious illness specialist at Bellin Hospital in Inexperienced Bay. Landrum stated the one different time in his profession that felt related by way of urgency was when he deployed to Iraq in 2009 and cared for wounded troopers within the U.S.’s largest fight hospital there.

The primary two confirmed circumstances of COVID-19 in Brown County, dwelling to Inexperienced Bay, have been introduced on March 18.

Bellin Well being operates a serious hospital in Inexperienced Bay together with many satellite tv for pc hospitals and clinics all through northeast Wisconsin. It’s one in every of many techniques within the state briefly provide of private protecting tools like masks, robes and gloves. The tools is vital to guard healthcare employees, who’re at a excessive danger of contracting COVID-19 whereas testing and treating sufferers.

One other widespread want amongst hospitals is ventilators, that are important for critically sick sufferers who’ve misplaced all or an excellent a part of their lung perform.

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State well being officers have requested well being techniques to gather and share details about their provide of essential tools like ventilators with a purpose to assess wants. As of March 17, state well being division Secretary-designee Andrea Palm indicated the method was ongoing and declined to offer an estimate of the variety of ventilators within the state.

“We’re persevering with to work to get a definitive variety of ventilators,” Palm stated in a media convention name, including that the Trump administration “has inspired hospitals to hunt and buy extra of them.”

Throughout a subsequent media name on March 20, Palm introduced there have been roughly 620 ventilators within the state.

A Feb. 14 report printed by the Middle for Well being Safety at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg College of Public Well being cited knowledge from 2010 (the most recent obtainable) indicating that hospitals within the U.S. at the moment owned roughly 62,000 full-featured ventilators and an extra 98,000 ventilators with fewer options that might be used throughout a disaster.

Bellin Well being has solely 18 ventilators readily available, together with a handful of different machines that may present oxygen for critically sick sufferers, in keeping with the system’s president and CEO, Chris Woleske.

This illustration depicts how ventilators work for sufferers with diminished lung capability.

Woleske and Landrum stated that Bellin has made it a high precedence to safe extra provides, which they acknowledged has confirmed extraordinarily troublesome as industrial provide chains buckle and the state works to achieve entry to the federal authorities’s Strategic Nationwide Stockpile.

In an electronic mail to WisContext, Tim Submit, a spokesperson for the Minnesota-based international producer 3M, stated the corporate has elevated manufacturing of its private protecting tools merchandise at services all over the world. Nonetheless, he added “3M expects demand for respirators and different provides to outpace provide for the foreseeable future.”

In the meantime, as of March 18, Wisconsin had obtained not one of the private protecting tools it requested from the federal stockpile, in keeping with Elizabeth Goodsit, a spokesperson for the state well being division. The state requested 54,709 N95 respirators, 130,326 surgical masks, 24,816 face shields, 20,233 surgical robes and 72,044 pairs of gloves.

“The Wisconsin Division of Well being Providers has been notified of the extraordinarily restricted provide of private protecting tools from the Strategic Nationwide Stockpile that shall be distributed to Wisconsin,” Goodsitt wrote in an electronic mail to WisContext. “The Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response will present DHS with 48-hour discover as to when these provides shall be arriving, however as of proper now, we’ve not obtained that discover,” she added.

Within the meantime, Landrum stated Bellin Well being is securing protecting tools “wherever and in every single place” it will possibly.

“An organization that works right here on the town that makes use of masks for demolition of buildings simply dropped off a pair containers, and we’ll take them,” he stated.

Bellin will not be the one system within the state searching for artistic options to shortages of provides and services. UW Hospital has warned it might must commandeer newly vacated dormitories on the UW-Madison campus to deal with overflow sufferers.

Even with social distancing, hospitals shall be strained

If makeshift options trace on the potential scale of the COVID-19 catastrophe looming over Wisconsin’s hospitals, a March 17 evaluation by public well being researchers on the Harvard World Well being Institute is being interpreted as a clarion name for fast and excessive social distancing and authorities mobilization.

Utilizing knowledge from quite a few public sources, the Harvard evaluation thought-about a number of potential eventualities for the COVID-19 pandemic, starting from one the place 20% of the grownup inhabitants contracts the illness to a different with a 40% price to a extra extreme outbreak that infects 60% of adults.

The researchers utilized these eventualities to what are identified amongst healthcare researchers as hospital referral areas, giant geographic areas that embody at the least one main hospital with cardiovascular and neurosurgery capabilities. These areas can cross state boundaries, and plenty of border communities in Wisconsin are affiliated with hospital referral areas in different states.

The Harvard group analyzed hospital mattress knowledge from 2018 inside these areas and calculated the variety of COVID-19 sufferers more likely to require hospitalization beneath the three pandemic eventualities. Inside these broader eventualities, additionally they thought-about three speeds at which new circumstances would develop that are supposed to mannequin the results of restricted, average and important social distancing, respectively.

These forecasts assume a COVID-19 burden on hospital techniques along with hospitals’ common mattress occupancy. Common occupancy tends to be between 50-60% at any cut-off date.

The fashions should not excellent and don’t account for capability many hospitals have freed up in preparation for COVID-19. Nonetheless, the outlook they undertaking for Wisconsin underscores the wartime degree of urgency felt by healthcare professionals throughout the state.

For example, within the hospital referral area anchored by Appleton, a low 20% an infection price mixed with important social distancing (and thus a slower, extra manageable outbreak) over an 18-month interval would nonetheless presumably overload the native hospital system’s capability.


In a middle-ground situation, the place 40% of the grownup inhabitants turns into contaminated over an 18-month interval due to important social distancing, the Appleton area’s healthcare capability would nonetheless be overrun.


In a worst-case situation with 60% of the inhabitants contaminated inside 6 months and restricted social distancing, the variety of sufferers requiring hospitalization within the Appleton area might exceed capability by 500%.


The mattress occupancy charges in these projections don’t mirror the present actuality in most Wisconsin hospitals, that are already coping with a heavy seasonal influenza season. On March 17, Inexperienced Bay Hearth Chief Dave Litton stated town’s hospitals have been already at 97% of their mattress capability.

Wisconsin is on no account distinctive in its capability points, and actually the state has a slighter greater variety of hospital beds per capita than the U.S. as a complete, which is at 2.8 per 1,000 folks — ProPublica and the New York Instances every performed nationwide analyses primarily based on Harvard’s fashions.

A ‘sturdy sense of dedication’

To say the least, the scenario is regarding for Chris Woleske and Dr. Michael Landrum with Bellin Well being, together with their colleagues across the state. And but every described a relaxed, centered mentality settling in as healthcare employees ready to wage warfare in opposition to COVID-19, from main city hospitals to small rural clinics.

“There is a very sturdy sense of dedication to the work,” stated Landrum. “Do not get me fallacious, there’s some anxiousness too, however you are stronger than you suppose, and I feel our employees is demonstrating that.”

Wisconsin’s docs, nurses, technicians and plenty of different caregivers and medical assist employees count on their energy and dedication to be examined within the coming weeks and months. If their work goes to bear fruit, the expansion curve of latest infections will nonetheless have to be flattened by means of profitable social isolation and maybe different measures over time.

Scott Stetson/PBS Wisconsin


Woleske acknowledged a disorienting and difficult time forward.

“We all know that the contagion of this virus is doubtlessly fairly fast, and there’s potential for even 50% of the inhabitants to be contaminated with the virus,” Woleske stated.

“There simply should not sufficient hospital beds, ICU beds, ventilators, educated physicians and employees within the conventional method to maintain that inhabitants,” she stated. “That is why slowing the unfold … to provide time for the healthcare system to fulfill the wants and for the scientists and epidemiologists and wonderful folks on the market that give you vaccines and antivirals to develop and get them into manufacturing so we will have a extra everlasting answer to COVID-19 is so vital.”

Earlier than such an answer is offered, although, UW epidemiologist Dr. Patrick Remington stated many extra are more likely to succumb to COVID-19, together with these battling on the entrance strains.

“Healthcare employees will die,” he stated. “That is a tough factor to say, however it’s the character of the enterprise.”


Editor’s notice: This text was initially printed on March 19, 2020 and subsequently up to date with new details about the entire variety of ICU beds and ventilators in Wisconsin.