Health and hospital officials said Wednesday, Nov. 11, they feared Wisconsin's COVID-19 situation was becoming increasingly dire, as the state reported more than 7,000 new cases and more than 60 deaths for the second day in a row amid record hospitalizations.

"We're close to a tipping point, where this could get much worse quickly," Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services, said the day after Gov. Tony Evers gave a rare prime time speech announcing an order advising residents to stay home.

A record 2,102 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 Wednesday, including a record 441 in intensive care. Eric Borgerding, CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, said staffing is a bigger challenge than finding beds because hundreds, if not thousands, of health care workers are at home after being infected with or exposed to the coronavirus, often in the community.

Soaring demand for care "is coming at a time when our capacity to treat that demand is becoming more and more diminished," Borgerding said.

With 7,048 new coronavirus cases reported Wednesday, just below Tuesday's record of 7,073, Wisconsin remains a national hotspot and the state's daily average of new cases was nearly 6,000, more than four times the average from two months ago. The state health department, which a few weeks ago started a "very high" COVID-19 activity category to reflect soaring cases in most counties, on Wednesday created a "critically high" category with a rate three times as high. All but seven of the state's 72 counties met the new bar.

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The state, with 62 coronavirus deaths reported Wednesday following a record 66 deaths Tuesday, has already had more deaths in November — 426 — than in any other full month except October.

Westergaard, who along with Borgerding spoke at a Wisconsin Health News webinar, said Wisconsin's surge of COVID-19 cases is worse than New York City's in April, except for the improved treatments now saving more lives nationwide. In order to get such care, however, most patients must be hospitalized.

"Right now our real biggest concern is making sure that our hospitals and clinics have the capacity to save everyone," Westergaard said. "That tipping point is when we stop being able to save everyone who gets severely ill."

Borgerding said hospitals in every part of the state are stressed, some with patients ready to be discharged to nursing homes that won't take them because of coronavirus outbreaks or concerns. A surge facility that opened in West Allis last month — which can take patients who have been hospitalized, are recovering well and want to go — had 11 patients Wednesday.

"It's not slowing down," Borgerding said.

Leaders of the Mayo Clinic Health System in Northwest Wisconsin said Tuesday they had 83 COVID-19 patients and their hospitals in Barron, Bloomer, Eau Claire, Menomonie and Osseo were full.

Dane County had a record 159 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, including a record 41 in intensive care.

Kirsten Johnson, director of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department in suburban Milwaukee, echoed Dane County and other health officials in saying contact tracing efforts are overwhelmed.

"At this point, we are unable to even contact all the positives within 24 hours," she said. "We can't get our arms around this."

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Tuesday he called and left a message for Evers calling for negotiation after the governor's speech that urged people to stay home, avoid gatherings and wear masks.

Republicans have challenged Evers' orders to close or reduce capacity of some businesses and to mandate masks. Evers and Vos said Tuesday they are eyeing unspecified legislation. A state health department spokeswoman said Wednesday it was too early to tell if Evers' new advisory order had curbed behaviors that can spread infection.

Meanwhile, UW-Madison said its rapid tests for COVID-19 will be available to the general public starting Thursday, by appointment only at Nielsen Tennis Stadium.

Westergaard said the main challenge is communicating the seriousness of the problem to everyone, including risks of seemingly innocuous gatherings such as play dates and birthday parties.

The challenge could be made easier, he said, by news this week that Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine may be 90% effective and could be available for some high-priority groups by the end of the year and potentially the general public by next spring.

"If we really buckle down and work harder for a specified amount of time, like the next 60-90 days ... it might seem more doable," he said.

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