‘If we don’t change course there will be issues’: La Crosse hospital capacity at risk as COVID-19 affects older people

La Crosse healthcare experts say community actions need to change to prevent surge in hospitalizations
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La Crosse County Health Department
La Crosse County Health Department

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – La Crosse County healthcare experts say there is room to take care of people who need it right now. However, they say the county is trending in the wrong direction and the health resources they have are not infinite.

Experts warn large gatherings like Tuesday’s rally in West Salem (which was estimated to be somewhere between 12,000-16,000 people according to Bill Feehan of the La Crosse County Republican Party) that these kinds of large gatherings could cripple La Crosse’s healthcare system.

“This is trending in the wrong direction,” said Jen Rombalski, director of the La Crosse County Health Department.

The average age of a COVID-19 patient in La Crosse County has gone from a person in their early 20s to a person in their early 40s. The older the person the greater chance that the person will have to go to a hospital if they become infected with COVID-19.

“This is not a drill,” said Dr. Todd Kowalski, from Gundersen Health System. “We are increasingly opening COVID units.”

Hospital capacity in La Crosse County is okay for now. The new Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative update shows that could change.

“People with healthcare issues are having to go to the hospital because they are ill with COVID,” said Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald from Mayo Clinic Health System.

Tuesday, thousands gathered for President Donald Trump in West Salem where there was little if any social distancing between people.

“Usually it’s minimally five days to up to 14 days later that we actually know what the true impact might be if we ever truly know the full impact,” Rombalski said.

Rombalski said the country still can’t keep up with contacting people who may have been exposed prior to that event.

“Our health department team has had so many cases that we’ve only been able to reach 67.7 percent,” she said.

The message from the nation’s commander in chief doesn’t fall in line with the data.

“We’re rounding the curve, we’re rounding the corner,” President Trump said at Tuesday’s rally at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway.

Kowalski said the way the virus spread has not changed.

“Viruses don’t care why we get together,” Kowalski said. “They care how we get together.”

Wisconsin hit more record highs the same day of the rally.

“Tuesday’s numbers from confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 are both the highest that we have seen throughout the entire pandemic so far,” Rombalski said.

P Coulee Covid Collab

COVID-19 case numbers in Wisconsin according to DHS Tuesday.

COVID-19 case numbers in Wisconsin from DHS Tuesday.

Again, it’s not the majority of people that are at risk of dying for COVID-19. Fitzgerald said data needs context for people to fully understand why this has their full attention.

“Do the numbers,” Fitzgerald said. “If we get up to a few thousand people with the virus and 10 percent of them are going to get ill to the point of hospitalization, our hospitals are going to get overrun.”

Kowalski specializes in infectious disease and he said healthcare workers are already feeling burnt out.

“These are our friends, these are our neighbors,” Kowalski said. “These are people who are so incredibly committed to caring for you through all sorts of illnesses, and the strain is taking a toll.”

It’s not just about COVID-19 patients.

“We need to care for heart disease,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to care for diabetes. We need to care for other medical issues.”

Health officials continued to ask for the community’s help during Wednesday’s virtual briefing.

“If we don’t change course there will be issues,” Kowalski said.

Healthcare officials say people need to prepare to cancel holiday gatherings. Even private gatherings can spread the virus. They say that is also affecting case growth in the county.