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Parts Of Wisconsin See Dramatic Rise In COVID-19 Cases


Wisconsin has a major COVID outbreak going on right now. Hospitalizations have increased there more than 250% in under three weeks. That's according to the state's Department of Health Services. The northeastern part of Wisconsin is seeing a dramatic surge in cases, and at the center of that area is Green Bay, a city of little more than a hundred thousand people. Dr. Michael Landrum is an infectious disease specialist at one of Green Bay's hospitals, Bellin Health, and he joins us now.

Hello there.

MICHAEL LANDRUM: Hello. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning. What was it like before this outbreak? Was there a sense that perhaps Wisconsin had escaped the worst of this?

LANDRUM: Yes, I think we had a little bit of a surge of patients back in the spring, but then the state pretty much shut down for a period of time, and the number of cases dropped. And I think that lull gave everyone perhaps a false sense of security that we had kind of sidestepped the pandemic and maybe we were in good shape.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what is the outbreak like in Green Bay right now? What have you been seeing?

LANDRUM: Well, it's unfortunate. We're seeing lots and lots of new cases in the community. Our hospitalizations and numbers, as you have said, have really gone up dramatically just since early September to the point where we're still able to operate and take care of everyone who does not have COVID-19, and we're continuing that. But our resources are stretched pretty thin, especially in the hospital staff are - we're getting tired.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Do we know what's behind the community spread?

LANDRUM: I think it's a little bit of everything. I do hear reports from public health and the patients that I see. A fair number of them have gotten together with family and friends and gotten exposed there. And then the equally unsettling part is that probably about half the patients that we see in the hospital - it's really not clear where they were exposed. They were wearing a mask. They were limiting their contact with others and social distancing, and they still somehow got exposed and got infected with COVID-19. And so that, to me, is almost even more startling because it just implies that it really is pretty widespread out in the community and spreading quickly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like you to take me inside the hospital. You said that you're feeling pretty tired now. What kind of adjustments have you had to make? Do you have enough personal protective equipment? How are you coping?

LANDRUM: So we started out a couple months ago where we had a few beds in the hospital that were designated for special isolation for patients with COVID-19. We've now expanded that dramatically to have more space for patients to go, and we've had to add additional staff for physicians taking care of patients, for nurses. We've had to reach out to contracting agencies and services to try to bring more staff.

There's a building next to our hospital that used to be a nursing home which closed a few years ago, and Bellin Health bought the building to have the property, but now we're actually using the building for potential overflow. We've kind of renovated some rooms there. So week by week, day by day, we wind up consuming more and more real estate in the hospital, so to speak, to take care of coronavirus patients.

Our PPE situation is much better than it was back in March and April. It's still a little bit of a struggle to get enough N95 masks. We still are on - practicing in ways where we're stretching the normal use cycle for N95s. Testing - we've been doing OK with that. Remdesivir we ran out of last week or the week before, but now...


LANDRUM: Yeah, we did.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This was, of course, the drug that President Trump was given.

LANDRUM: Correct. Yeah. There was a supply chain issue, and we actually ran out as we were having increasing number of patients. We were able to fix that, and now we've got ample supply, we feel like. But that did happen. Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Landrum, listening to the kind of dance that you've had to do not only with staffing, but getting vital medicines and supplies - we're seven months into this pandemic in this country. What do you wish the government - be it local, state or federal - would've done to help you be more prepared so that you wouldn't find yourself in this particular situation?

LANDRUM: I think the really hard thing now is trying to somehow - since we had that lull in the spring and people got maybe a false sense of security about it, it's somehow now trying to get the message out there to reign things back in again a second time. You know, when coronavirus was brand-new in the spring to all of us in the country, the fear of the unknown, I think, motivated people to lay low and be extra safe. And then now we had this period of time when people got used to going out and doing things for a while where rates were still kind of low.

But now that's not the case, and so trying to get people to now be more serious about wearing a mask or social distancing is, I think, a big challenge. And so mixed messages being sent about whether or not it's just like the flu or worse - you know, those mixed messages, I think, have an impact on what people are doing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And we should be clear - President Trump did say after being infected that it was like the flu, even though that is not the case. May I ask you this in closing? We do know that epidemiologists have been predicting another big spike in cases the closer we get to winter. Do you think the surge you're experiencing is going to get worse or will level off?

LANDRUM: Well, I've got anxiety about that for sure. I mean, I try to just take it day by day. But when I hear that public health resources here are overwhelmed to the point where they can't do contact tracing and they are simply calling positive patients and letting them know they were positive and then asking them to contact those that they may have been with in the last few days to let them know that they were exposed, I just feel like there's probably a lot of people out in the community that may not know that they were exposed and that they should be quarantining. And then they start going to these social gatherings, and it just is a recipe for really skyrocketing rates of infection.

Like I said, right now, we've got the resources. Even though we're stretched thin, we're taking care of everybody, COVID and non-COVID. And I really have anxiety that we could get to a point where we're having to, you know, ration things out or we're not able to take care of someone who needs to be at the hospital.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Michael Landrum, an infectious disease specialist at Bellin Health in Green Bay, Wis.

Our thoughts are with you. Thank you very much.

LANDRUM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.