Protective gear supply won’t be enough to meet surge demand in Wisconsin

Advocate Aurora pauses COVID-19 testing sites

Last updated on March 23rd, 2020 at 12:59 pm

The supply of personal protective equipment that Wisconsin has received from the federal government won’t be enough to meet surge demand as the coronavirus continues to spread, state Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said Friday.

“This is obviously very concerning for us,” Palm said.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Friday he is asking the federal government to take “whatever steps are necessary to ensure a steady stream of facemasks, gloves, gowns and other protective items” is delivered to the states from the federal stockpile.

“We are committed to making sure these critical supplies are getting to hospitals and clinics as quickly as possible,” Evers said. “Demand is high though, and what we have received so far from the federal government falls far short of what is needed in the state to protect those who may come into direct contact with the virus. I’m calling on the federal government to take whatever actions are within its power to make sure these supplies are being directed to where they are needed most.”

As communities compete for the limited supplies available to fight the pandemic, Palm said the state is now seeking manufacturers that will convert their lines to begin pumping out needed equipment, she said.

In the meantime, Palm said DHS plans to distribute its first shipment of supplies from the federal emergency stockpile to providers across the state, with priority going to areas with community spread and a higher concentration of confirmed cases.

Palm said the state has received 54,709 N95 respirators, 130,326 surgical masks, 24,816 face shields, 20,233 surgical gowns, 104 coveralls and 72,044 gloves from the federal stockpile.

DHS is also encouraging health care providers to take conservation measures, such as rewashing goggles and reusing uncontaminated face masks, to make supplies last.

Palm and Evers addressed reporters Friday afternoon, which followed confirmation Thursday evening of the first two deaths due to COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin. State officials announced a third death in the state Friday morning.

“This has been hard and I’m sorry to say we do expect the situation to worsen,” Palm said.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 206 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, including 85 in Milwaukee County.

Testing supplies shortages continue as well. Milwaukee- and Downers Grove, Illinois-based Advocate Aurora Health on Friday said it is pausing its COVID-19 testing sites and postponing opening any new sites as a result of national test kit shortages.

“We are committed to seeking creative ways to partner and secure more tests,” the health system said. “In the meantime, we will continue our efforts to build emergency department triage units.”

Earlier in the week, Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center chief medical officer Dr. Nkem Iroegbu said the health system planned to establish drive-thru testing sites at many of its Wisconsin locations, and would roll them out in phases. Advocate Aurora also said ACL Laboratories, which is owned by the health system, was gearing up to perform at least 400 tests daily with results back in fewer than 24 hours.

While the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene has increased its capacity for COVID-19 testing over the past week, DHS said the number of testing specimens being received far exceeds its daily capacity. To conserve supplies, WSLH and DHS are prioritizing specific tiers of cases, including those who are critically ill, those who have knowingly been exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 patient and health care workers.

Public health officials have also warned of potential shortages of other life-saving equipment, including ventilators, if the virus spreads to too many people too quickly. The state currently has about 2,500 ICU beds and 620 ventilators, which wouldn’t be enough under some scenarios of the virus’s spread. Palm said every hospital in the state is examining how they can convert their hospital beds into ICU beds.

Palm urged people to use telehealth appointments when possible to mitigate the spread of the virus to health care workers and others.

Evers implored people to take social distancing mandates seriously.

“Stay at home,” Evers said. “There are folks working around the clock to keep us all safe, our health care workers, our first responders, farmers, manufacturers, grocery store employees. And they can’t stay at home. We need these folks to stay healthy so they can continue to serve our communities.”

While Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a “shelter in place” order effective Saturday, Evers said he does not anticipate he will take similar action.

“I believe that we will be able to avoid that,” Evers said. “People in the state Wisconsin are taking this seriously … We will follow the science on that. We don’t anticipate doing that.”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.

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