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Mayo, Gundersen prepare for COVID-19 hospital surge in La Crosse

Mayo, Gundersen prepare for COVID-19 hospital surge in La Crosse

Mayo and Gundersen Clinic Health Systems have been preparing for the appearance of COVID-19 in the Coulee Region for weeks.

And in the days since the first positive case was reported March 18, efforts have ramped up exponentially, with staff stepping up to help other departments and hospital officials doing everything in their power to keep supplies in stock and beds at the ready.

Since the second week of March, Mayo’s Hospital Incident Command System team has been running at full force, with medical officers, security, operations members and more meeting daily to examine hospital policies, implement a labor reserve to repurpose staff and find ways to accommodate patients via telephone and video visits.

“We’ve really stepped up our efforts in that space and our surgical procedure practice — we’re only taking those cases that are urgent,” says Mike Morrey, regional chair of administration for Mayo Clinic in southwest Wisconsin. “We need to make sure we have adequate hospital capacity if we experience a patient surge.”

Chris Stauffer, corporate communications for Gundersen Health System, which has also arranged for many patient appointments to be conducted remotely, says efforts to prepare sufficient spaces for severe cases of COVID-19 include modifying areas of the hospital and converting rooms to negative-pressure units.

With many clinic visits and surgeries being cancelled and delayed to ensure capacity, physicians and nurses from outpatient and surgical departments at Mayo are being shifted to other roles based on their areas of experience and expertise. Some staff members are already being stationed at hospital entrances to serve as screeners for patients and to take the temperature of fellow workers prior to admittance.

“We have a labor pool within our structure, and our intent there is to have employees ready and willing,” says Jason Fratzke, chief nursing officer for Mayo Clinic Health System. “We’re proactively touching base and looking at how their role may be needed. ... When the need arises, we have their contact information.”

“No one who is uncomfortable with a certain type of case will be left alone,” added Dr. Jeffrey Jensen of Mayo Clinic Rochester. “We will make sure patients get the right care from the right expert.”

Staff at both Mayo and Gundersen have been well prepped on COVID-19 precautions and procedures, including in the instance of community spread, which is now present in La Crosse County.

This includes training on proper use of a ventilator, preparing for changes in workflow and workload and planning for potential scenarios. Mandatory measures at each hospital include evaluating staff to ensure they are healthy prior to starting their shift.

“Gundersen teams across our entire organization, including at our affiliate hospitals and clinics, are rallying together to prepare our facilities — and each other — for COVID-19, from staff members floating to other units to ensuring our hospitals and clinics are sanitized,” Stauffer says.

Dr. Paul Mueller, Mayo's SW wisconsin regional VP


Dr. Paul Mueller, regional vice president for Mayo Clinic Health System in southwest Wisconsin, notes he and Scott Rathgaber, chief executive officer at Gundersen Health System, check in with each other to collaborate and stay abreast of changes and issues with COVID-19.

The hospitals also work closely with state and local health departments, as well as their respective branches and partners.

Mayo coordinates local efforts with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where it sends COVID-19 tests. The two hospitals are able to assist each other with supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment, both of which are running low nationwide.

Todd Kowalski

Todd Kowalski

During a COVID-19 press conference Wednesday at the La Crosse County Health Department, Fratzke and infectious disease control physician Dr. Todd Kowalski of Gundersen declined to share an exact number of available ICU and hospital beds or level of supply inventory at the hospitals.

“We are very well prepared,” Kowalski said. “We have developed surge planning. We are executing surge planning. We have the plans in place. We have the capacity at this time to take care of the needs of the community and region.”

“I’d echo that,” Fratzke responded. “Numbers really depend on what capacity is needed. Between our organizations we have a lot of capacity and a lot of ways to think differently about the way that we provide care, and we’re doing that and working very hard at being prepared to do it.”

Mueller and Stauffer alike commended the commitment and compassion demonstrated by hospital employees in a stressful and anomalous time in health care.

Says Stauffer: “Our staff has demonstrated resiliency, flexibility, selflessness and paramount dedication because our communities are counting on us.”

Emily Pyrek can be reached at

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