‘Situation growing more challenging by the day’ as COVID hospitalizations reach new high at Advocate Aurora

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COVID hospitalizations have reached a pandemic high at Advocate Aurora Health medical centers in recent days, worsening already existing staffing shortages and leading to longer wait times for patients.

As of Monday morning, the Milwaukee- and Downers Grove, Illinois-based health system is treating 1,491 COVID inpatients across its 26 hospitals. At its highest count in the late-November 2020 pandemic peak, Advocate Aurora had 1,182 hospitalized patients.

The total number of hospitalized COVID patients in the health system has doubled from 30 days ago, when there were 602 inpatients, and quadrupled from 60 days ago, said chief nursing officer Mary Beth Kingston. Among the hospitalized patients, 92% are unvaccinated or have not received the full dose/booster.

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Large volumes of COVID patients are at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee (142), only surpassed in the system by Advocate Christ Medical Center in suburban Chicago, where there are 269 COVID patients. Other Milwaukee-area medical centers with high concentrations of COVID inpatients include Sinai in Milwaukee (51), West Allis (50) and Grafton (36).

“The situation is growing more challenging by the day. Beds are very tight, and wait times are long,” Kingston said.

Like health care organizations across the country, Advocate Aurora was dealing with staffing shortages prior to the omicron-driven COVID surge in recent weeks. The situation has been exacerbated due to increased stress, fatigue and employees contracting COVID themselves, she said.

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Advocate Aurora is offering incentives for staff members to pick up additional shifts and is training employees who don’t ordinarily provide direct patient care to assist at the bedside, transport patients and fill in other needed areas.

“We really are trying to pull in all of our workforce to help during this time,” Kingston said.

Amid the surge, Avocate Aurora has deferred non-essential elective procedures and surgeries in some cases, depending on local case numbers, staffing and bed availability, said chief medical group officer Jeff Bahr.

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The system has also moved staff and patients to different sites to manage bed capacity. Last week, three Milwaukee-area urgent care centers – in Menomonee Falls, Brookfield and in Schlitz Park in downtown Milwaukee – were temporarily closed because of staffing shortages.

“We don’t turn people away, so there’s simply the more work to do over the same period of time in the same physical constraints and staffing constraints,” he said.

Advocate Aurora also recently reinstated its emergency department visitor restrictions. No visitors are allowed for adult patients in the emergency department, while pediatric patients are allowed two visitors.

“We understand this can be a source of frustration but it is necessary to reduce exposures,” Bahr said.

COVID hospitalizations across Milwaukee County also reached a pandemic record Monday, according to Dr. Benjamin Weston, chief health policy advisor for the county. As of the afternoon, 635 inpatients were being treated for COVID, representing a 50% increase in less than a week.

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