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In this January 2021 file photo, a health care worker injects a man with a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Beloit. Local hospital and public health officials urge people to continue to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as hospitals report greater numbers of patients who have COVID-19 or other conditions.

JANESVILLE

In Rock County, health care officials say they are not seeing a surge in hospitalizations for COVID-19 infections—at least not one like the deluge of patients with coronavirus that hospitals saw this time last year.

Yet local hospital officials and an epidemiologist for Rock County say COVID-19 hospitalizations have been on an uptick here recently, and it comes as hospitals also are seeing an increase in people being admitted for non-COVID-19 illnesses, including seasonal flu and cold viruses.

Hospitals are further treating more people with severe complications from diabetes and heart and circulatory diseases—the types of chronic illnesses that health experts have linked to patients deferring routine health care during the pandemic.

Nick Zupan, epidemiologist for the Rock County Public Health Department, said that as of this week, hospitals countywide only have about 3% of intensive-care unit beds open and available and that all but about 6% of general hospital beds remain sewn up.

“The numbers aren’t great at this point in terms of the intensive care unit beds available. In a non-pandemic world, it would be very abnormal for any time of year,” Zupan said.

In addition to the typical cold and flu illnesses seen this time of year, local health care experts say they’re seeing notable increases in other viral illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus. That disease, often referred to simply as RSV, causes mild cold symptoms in adults but can lead to more critical respiratory illness in young children.

County data shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations have numbered between 17 and 37 for all of November. Most patients have been those who aren’t vaccinated against the virus.

Zupan said those tallies are an increase from earlier this fall, though he acknowledged it is far fewer patients than the average of 65 or 70 Rock County residents a day who were hospitalized with COVID-19 in late November 2020, according to health department data.

He said based on past trends, the county might have to wait until two or three weeks after Thanksgiving to learn whether another uptick in local COVID-19 cases could burden local hospitals.

Meanwhile, data shows about 60% of Rock County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Most people now being hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, health care officials said.

“We’re starting to see elevated numbers of COVID patients in the hospital, and it makes it complicated when there are cardiac patients and people who have other kinds of illnesses,” Zupan said.

“Hospitals already were strained. There are limited resources, and then you add new cases of COVID on top of everything else.”

Omicron variant

According to news reports in the last few weeks, active COVID-19 cases have increased more than 16-fold in South Africa’s most densely populated sate, Gauteng—a region where health researchers believe a new coronavirus variant, omicron, originated.

The Associated Press reported it likely will take scientists days if not weeks to learn whether existing COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing infection by the omicron variant. It’s also not clear whether omicron could be more contagious or cause more severe disease compared to other variants.

The omicron variant has not officially been detected in the U.S. Another imported variant, delta, rapidly spread through some regions of the U.S. earlier this year.

Kathi Glenn, the chief nursing officer at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Janesville, said St. Mary’s gets calls daily from officials at other hospitals throughout Wisconsin and northern Illinois who are scrambling to find inpatient beds for people with serious, acute or chronic conditions.

Glenn wouldn’t divulge how many beds St. Mary’s has occupied in Janesville, but she said her hospital, which has a maximum of 50 beds, has not been in a position to accept overflow patients from outside the county or state.

She said St. Mary’s emergency room now has “double the amount of activity” compared to last winter—and the illnesses the unit is seeing range from heart attack patients to people complaining of COVID-19-like symptoms to chronic problems such as severe blood sugar problems and heart disease—problems health experts had predicted would begin to materialize after some people deferred doctor visits for months during the pandemic.

“When you don’t take care of your condition, your condition will take care of you,” Glenn said. “You can end up being much sicker, unfortunately. And often not just with one condition but multiple conditions.”

Glenn said that many of the emerging illnesses that are causing hospitalizations now, including COVID-19, can take weeks of hospitalization to treat. That presents a problem for hospitals that might face a sudden surge of influenza at some point in the winter.

Zupan and Glenn both said health officials continue to recommend wearing masks in public, especially in the coming weeks as cold and flu season kicks into high gear. Both also continue to recommend that those who have not gotten vaccinated against influenza and COVID-19, including children, do so.

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