None of us expected the pandemic to last this long. We are all tired of masks, sick of restrictions, and of hearing the horror stories of people dying of a virus unnecessarily.
I am a hospice physician, and sadly, I am seeing COVID patients dying of lung failure, kidney failure and a variety of other problems. The most frequent cases are patients who cannot clear their COVID pneumonia and die from hunger for air. Suffocating is a terrible way to die. There is nothing much worse than not being able to breathe. We can ease patients’ pain, but we cannot change the outcome.
This is an article about the facts of the pandemic — and it is an urgent request for action by all readers.
The past two years have been difficult for most all of us. More than 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-related illness (the true number is likely much higher). In Wisconsin, we have lost more than 10,000 family and friends to COVID. That number grows each day.
There are about 2,100 Wisconsinites in the hospital with COVID [as of Jan. 6, 2022]. In July of 2021, that number was about 100. There are about 475 Wisconsinites in ICU beds [as of Jan. 6, 2022]. In July, there were 20.
The vast majority of severely ill patients with COVID are unvaccinated.
Hospitals and health systems in Wisconsin are now in a crisis. The crisis is twofold: a lack of ICU beds for COVID and non-COVID patients, and a critical shortage of workers to care for patients. The rate of employees leaving health care in Wisconsin has risen 30%. The rate of burnout in nurses, physicians and other professionals has been well documented.
People are not getting all of the health care services they need, because health care systems are overwhelmed with COVID patients. This means delays in surgical cases for cancer and heart patients. As of last summer, the CDC estimates that 41% of U.S. adults had delayed health care services because of the pandemic. While mainly an annoyance until now, it will soon reach a crisis.
The COVID virus has been more difficult to control than expected. The omicron variant is much more contagious than delta. It is likely that there will be more variants that continue to keep this virus in our community. This is what viruses do — they mutate to "outsmart" us.
My colleagues locally and nationally are simply running out of steam. They are working long hours and feel a sense of failure because they are telling patients and families that they cannot solve the problems of COVID. The virus overwhelms the body, and people die. Part of the frustration for health care workers is that the very sick and dying are almost all unvaccinated. We have all seen the deathbed pleas from COVID patients, wishing they had been vaccinated. However, in this highly politicized world, even those pleas don't seem to sink in with people who aren't vaccinated. Next time you see a health care worker, please thank them for all that they do each day. Ask them not to give up on their profession.
I choose to wear a mask and be vaccinated for the safety of others, as well as myself. Even though I am vaccinated and have received a booster shot, I know that I could become infected with COVID and pass it along to someone else. I couldn't sleep at night if I felt that my actions might have caused someone else’s death. I take precautions for my granddaughters (one of whom is too young for vaccination), for my relatives, for my friends, for my neighbors, and for the strangers that I meet in the grocery store.
What responsible Wisconsin citizens can do:
Put the masks back on. When you are in indoor spaces, like grocery stores, you WILL be close to people with the virus. They can transmit the virus before they have symptoms. Masks remain a good way to protect others and yourself. I encourage employers to reinstitute masking policies for employees and guests. Simply put, this saves lives.
If you have been exposed or have symptoms, get tested. If you are positive, please isolate yourself according to CDC guidelines. This disease variant, omicron, spreads so easily. We all need to take extra steps to make certain we are not spreading the virus.
Please, please, please get vaccinated. Vaccines have helped us defeat smallpox, polio and other viral diseases. The solution to COVID is to get everyone vaccinated. More boosters may be necessary. If you won’t do this for yourself, do it for your family.
Think about this: How many people have you heard of dying from the vaccine? Likely no one. Have you heard of someone dying of COVID? Likely you have.
Please do the right thing. We have safe and effective vaccines that can help prevent serious infection and death. Let’s take advantage of that and end this pandemic.
Dr. Nick Turkal is the former CEO of Aurora Health Care. He is a practicing hospice physician in Wisconsin, and a national health care consultant. Eric Borgerding, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association, contributed to this piece.
This column originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
on Jan. 5, 2022.