By Shereen Siewert

Local hospitals are seeing the strain of an “exponential” rise in COVID-19 cases and associated hospitalizations, creating staffing challenges and filling beds at an alarming rate, Aspirus CEO Matthew Heywood said Monday.

Three weeks ago Aspirus had 10 patients with COVID-19 system-wide. That number now sits between 60 and 80, Heywood said. Last week the number of patients jumped from 47 to 61 in a single day.

“This is just a touch of what we’re going to experience between November, December and January,” Heywood said, adding that the community could mitigate the spread by doing four things: wearing a mask in public, remaining socially distant from others, refraining from attending large gatherings and staying home when feeling ill.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Marathon County increased by 140 from Friday to Sunday alone, bringing the total to 1,841, according to health officials.

Public health guidelines are widely accepted in both the medical and scientific community. But many people in Marathon County are refusing to abide by recommended guidelines, saying they will “never” wear a mask and continuing to engage in what officials describe as high-risk behavior by attending large gatherings without social distancing. Surveys indicate fewer than half of Marathon County residents wear masks in public, while health officials say 90 to 95 percent compliance is necessary for face coverings to be effective.

Heywood said public compliance is essential to gaining control over the spread of the virus and ensuring the public has access to care unrelated to COVID-19, something that could be affected as infections increase.

“If we can’t get a more cohesive response to this we’ll have an even bigger problem,” Heywood said. “We as a community need to assess what we need to do to manage this. Instead of looking for who’s to blame or who’s at fault, let’s focus on these four things.”

Heywood said about 15 to 20 percent of hospitalized patients are younger than 50.

“This is not purely a situation for people who are later in their years,” Heywood said.

Between 115 and 150 staff members have been ill, Heywood said, presenting significant staffing challenges the hospital is working to address.

While Aspirus has enough beds at this time, the hospital system is getting “close to the max” of COVID-19-designated beds at this time. A surge plan is in place to allow increase of bed capacity, but that could mean that nonessential procedures could be delayed, Heywood said.

Monday’s news conference came on the heels of a joint statement by the North Central Wisconsin Hospital Emergency Readiness Coalition (NCWI HERC) that also urged residents to follow the guidance of public health agencies.

“Our regional health systems are continuing to see an increase in COVID-19 related hospitalizations and patients testing positive, particularly in the last few weeks,” a coalition statement reads. “We have been working hard for the last six months to prepare for this surge, and we continue to provide quality, safe care for our communities.”

The coalition represents Aspirus, Marshfield Clinic and Ascension health systems.

“We stand with public health officials in their educational efforts around these basic and essential measures as they work tirelessly to keep our communities safe,” the statement reads. “Now is not the time for any of us to become complacent.  We are far from being clear of danger.”

NCWI HERC officials are also urging residents to get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend all people six months and older get flu vaccinations.

“We have the power to turn things around,” NCWI HERC officials said. “We need everyone to take this seriously to slow the spread.”