The arrival of Thanksgiving week has local officials and healthcare experts worried about a significant spread of COVID-19 as families gather to celebrate.
“We enter Thanksgiving very aware of the catastrophic effects gatherings could have through increased transmission of the disease,” Milwaukee County’s Emergency Management Medical Director Ben Weston said in a virtual conference with reporters on Tuesday. “We have not yet experienced in this pandemic a holiday like Thanksgiving, with indoor gatherings. Managed incorrectly, it could lead to a spike in hospitalizations that would overwhelm any health system.”
Weston’s comments came as the state reported 104 deaths from COVID-19, a single-day record.
The demand for COVID-19 testing remains extremely strong this week, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
On Monday, 2,568 people got tested at the community testing site at Miller Park. Another 634 went through testing at the Milwaukee Health Department’s Northwest Health Center, while the Southside Health Center administered 488 tests.
In all, nearly 4,000 people received tests at the community sites.
Barrett noted that all three community testing sites will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. Only the Miller Park location will be open on Friday.
There have been more than 63,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Milwaukee County since the pandemic took hold in March and 635 county residents have died of the coronavirus.
The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office released data this week showing which age groups have been most affected by COVID-19 deaths. As of Monday, the 70-79 age group accounted for 179 deaths; 80-89 had 138; 60-69 totaled 123; and there were 102 in the 90-99 range.
Diabetes, hypertension, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia and congestive heart failure were the most common co-morbidities contributing to COVID-19 deaths in Milwaukee County, according to the Medical Examiner.
Speaking at the Milwaukee Press Club’s virtual Newsmaker Luncheon on Tuesday, Medical College of Wisconsin President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. John Raymond noted that hospitals throughout the state remain near capacity as COVID-19 cases surge. Hospitals in Southeastern Wisconsin reached about 95% of capacity last week, he said.
“I want to be clear. Only 31% of the hospital beds are filled with people who are in the hospital for COVID-19,” Raymond said. “But other illnesses don’t stop when we have a pandemic like this. This has strained our capacity.”
Hospitals don’t optimally function when occupancy rates rise above 75-85%, he added.
Hospital staffing is becoming a major concern in the battle against COVID-19, Raymond said.
“Hundreds of health care providers are out sick with COVID-19 or in quarantine because they have been exposed to somebody who has COVID-19,” he said. “This has been a challenge for us.”
Raymond also expressed heightened concern with the arrival of the extended holiday season.
“I know this is a difficult time for us. We are 10 months into a pandemic and people need human touch,” Raymond said. “But where the pandemic is actually taking hold right now is in small family gatherings and leisure-time activities. And as we enter the holiday season, if people ignore the recommendations from public health officials it’s very likely that we will overwhelm the capacity of our health systems.”
Personal responsibility is crucial to curbing the spread of COVID-19, Raymond stressed.
“Everyone needs to remember that human beings are the host and the vector for spreading this lethal, silent virus,” he said. “The most important variable right now is our own behavior. Therapeutics that are coming along are modestly effective, but the most important thing we have is how we behave.”
Heeding the advice of experts also goes a long way in protecting front-line health care workers, Raymond said.
“It is nice that the community calls health care workers heroes, but it’s more meaningful if people take their personal responsibility more seriously,” he said. “It is so frustrating for our health care providers, including myself, who have taken care of COVID-19 patients and see what a devastating, terrible disease it is, to see continuing disbelief in science and facts out in the community. That does contribute to burnout and frustration.”
The challenges from the coronavirus will extend well beyond the Thanksgiving holiday, Weston warned.
“The next few months are going to be the most challenging times we’ve seen so far in the pandemic,” Weston said. “We know an end is in sight. There are vaccines that are effective, but we have to get through this winter. It’s going to be challenging with cold weather, indoor gatherings and COVID fatigue.”