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Gundersen, Mayo open additional COVID units as hospitalizations reach "unprecedented numbers"

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Last week, local health officials shared alarm about the sharp increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Now, just days after Gundersen Health System opened its third COVID-19 unit, patients are overflowing into a fourth, and Mayo Clinic Health System now has a second area for infectious patients.

Beth Smith-Houskamp

Beth Smith-Houskamp

Dr. Amy Williams

Dr. Amy Williams

“The number of hospitalizations are increasing rapidly,” says Beth Smith-Houskamp, PhD, RN and Gundersen’s chief operating officer. “It is unprecedented. As the numbers rise, we have well over 50 COVID patients between our walls right now receiving care, and 70 within the system, and that continues to rise.”

Since the start of the pandemic, over 500 COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized at Gundersen’s regional locations, with over 70 active hospitalizations at Gundersen facilities Tuesday morning.

Over the past week, Mayo has averaged between 25 to 35 coronavirus patients on a given day, according to Mayo’s senior communications media specialist Rick Thiesse.

Both hospitals take care of patients from surrounding counties, and Smith-Houskamp says coronavirus patients of all ages have been hospitalized at Gundersen.

The Coulee COVID-19 Collaborative reported that as of Monday, 201 La Crosse County residents have ever been hospitalized for the coronavirus, including 15 new as of Nov. 16, and put the metric for the seven-day rolling average new hospitalization rate in the red/concern category for the first time Nov. 11. At 19.6 per 100,000 per day, the number is over double the eight or more threshold for red. Metrics are updated by the Collaborative weekly on Wednesday afternoons.

The current situation, Smith-Houskamp says, “is overwhelming,” with hospital capacity far more complex than the number of open beds. On Monday, over 500 staff members at Gundersen’s regional locations were out due to the coronavirus, whether from being infected themselves, quarantining, caring for ill family members or awaiting test results. Mayo reported last week 100 staff members out for COVID-19 reasons.

“Adding a bed means adding a team,” says Smith-Houskamp, noting that a patient undergoing hospitalization for COVID-19 requires more care, both in resources and intensity, than the average non-COVID patient.

Both Gundersen and Mayo have been shifting around staff to accommodate the influx in coronavirus patients, and Gundersen has postponed elective surgeries requiring overnight stays to conserve space and employees.

While Mayo in La Crosse has not yet taken that step, Dr. Amy Williams of Mayo Clinic Rochester said Tuesday some Mayo locations have put delays on elective procedures, and notes that “All of our hospitals are really stretched. Many are absolutely full at this time.”

Hospitals are doing everything possible to keep high quality care available to all patients, but beyond concerns for space and resources are those for the mental, physical and emotional health of staff.

“We are still giving great and effective care, but the staff are tired,” Smith-Houskamp says. “We are rising to the occasion, but we are in a dire situation.”

Smith-Houskamp implores community members to make “wise and thoughtful decisions” in regards to holiday plans, stressing the importance of masking, distancing and hand washing in protecting oneself, their loved ones and the community and health care system at large. Individuals of all ages are also strongly encouraged to get their flu shots if they have not already done so to decrease influenza related hospitalizations and thus conserve care.

At Southwest Wisconsin Mayo locations, over 24,000 doses of the flu vaccine have been administered thus far this season, in comparison to 15,000 during the same time period in 2019, says Ben Anderson, nurse administrator at Mayo Clinic Health System. While the “earlier the better” to receive the vaccine, Anderson says it continues to be available and recommended.

“We have well over 50 COVID patients between our walls right now receiving care, and 70 within the system, and that continues to rise.” Beth Smith-Houskamp, PhD, RN and Gundersen’s chief operating officer.

Emily Pyrek can be reached at

"We have well over 50 COVID patients between our walls right now receiving care, and 70 within the system, and that continues to rise."

Beth Smith-Houskamp, PhD, RN and Gundersen's chief operating officer.


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