‘It’s turning into a horror story’: La Crosse doctors warn COVID-19 spread crippling healthcare

La Crosse healthcare system doctors say current COVID-19 trend in Western Wisconsin is 'unsustainable'
Coulee Covid Collaborative

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – La Crosse healthcare professionals say lives are on the line if the community doesn’t change its habits. Officials say hospitals are near a breaking point.

Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative leaders had a sobering message Wednesday night. One in every three people is testing positive for COVID-19 in La Crosse County. Staff at healthcare facilities are watching resources evaporate.

“Our case rate has nearly tripled in the last three weeks,” said Jen Rombalski, La Crosse County Health Department Director.

More people are dying from the virus.

“Twenty-six of our 32 deaths have occurred since Oct. 1,” she said during the collaborative’s virtual briefing Wednesday.

Dr. Todd Kowalski of Gundersen Health System said their healthcare system had five COVID-19 patients on Sept. 1. The total is now north of 70.

“That’s nearly doubling every two weeks,” Kowalski said.

Mayo Clinic Health System’s Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald said this does not only affect COVID-19 patients.

“It’s turning into a horror story,” Fitzgerald said. “People may not get their cancer treatments surgeries. People may not get the procedures that are really important to their overall health.”

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“That means we are going to be taking care of patients in tents, not in hospital beds,” Fitzgerald said.

Kowalski said Gundersen has been averaging 500 employees daily who cannot work due to COVID-19 related issues. There is a problem in the community Fitzgerald said he is tired of mentioning, and it came from one of his ER nurses.

“‘Working in healthcare right now feels like a firefighter who has a certain percentage of their community think it’s okay to set a fire because it doesn’t affect them,'” Fitzgerald said. “‘It might just burn their neighbor.'”

There’s the other side who think those fires aren’t real.

“We’re fighting that fire right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to get past those narratives.”

This is not a hypothetical Kowalski said, the risk to La Crosse’s healthcare is a coulee region reality. Right now hospitals from other cities in Wisconsin are sending patients to La Crosse because they are already full.

“There may not be a place to send people to,” Kowalski said.

Staff are tired and working far beyond their job descriptions Kowalski said. These are people and they too can reach a breaking point.

“I see in their eyes, I here when their voices crack,” Kowalski said. “It’s obvious in their body language that we are strained as healthcare providers.”

There could be more difficult decisions ahead if the spike doesn’t slow down.

“We may have to ration care,” Fitzgerald said. “We may have to make really tough choices about who actually gets care and who doesn’t.”

Collaborative officials are all but ordering people to stop gathering. That means anyone outside of a household is strongly discouraged.

Gundersen Health System researcher Paraic Kenny said earlier this week gatherings in people’s homes are likely driving the current spike. Experts from the collaborative also advise businesses to stay at 25 percent capacity. They also recommend schools cancel all in-person group activities for the next 30 days. For the full report click Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative-This is a Crisis.