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Gundersen doctor discusses host of dilemmas — and one easy solution — as COVID-19 ramps up again

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Rick Solem
FILE - Gundersen Health System, La Crosse, Wis.

COVID-19 hitting a bit different this time around.

The music is the same. The lyrics are just different. And there’s an easy way to end this dance.

After all, we really shouldn’t be dancing — not without masks on, anyway.

Dolan

While COVID ravaged the elderly population before the vaccines came, things have changed over the past year — a year with vaccinations — according to Dr. Michael Dolan, executive vice president and in internal medicine at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse.

“It’s like a perfect storm right now,” he told WIZM. “In addition to Omicron starting to take off, you also have influenza and then you throw Christmas and New Year’s on top of that — where traditionally families have big get-togethers, people travel a lot — and, all of a sudden, you’ve got this perfect storm, which is just going to absolutely cause exponential spread of the virus.”

A couple of glaring stats — though the first batch is just part of the song and dance people refuse to stop.

The Wisconsin Department of Health recently stated that those who are not vaccinated are:

  • 11 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19
  • 12 times higher to die from the virus
  • 5 times more likely to contract it

Add that to this stat Dolan pointed out.

“The CDC is estimating that … where there is community spread of COVID — which is most of them, by the way — that Omicron cases are going to double every one and a half to three days. That, to me, is an astounding number,” Dolan said.

La Crosse County’s community transmission remains very high. The health department noted the county is averaging 434 cases a day over the past week.

At Gundersen, Dolan said 83% of its COVID-19 patients have been unvaccinated.

Getting back to the elderly, Dolan said that’s not who makes up a majority of COVID-19 hospital stays anymore — because they’re vaccinated.

“We used to think of COVID — especially from the hospital perspective — as a disease of the elderly population,” Dolan said. “And I will tell you, that is no longer the case.”

He added that 81% of those 65 years old and up are vaccinated.

“That’s why we’re seeing a lot more people in the hospital with COVID that are under the age of 65,” Dolan said. “And that’s kind of been mirrored by the deaths that we’re seeing, too.”

Throw into the mix shortages — of staff and beds. And, for the staff that are powering through, there’s ridiculous fatigue. 

“Today we have 90% of our beds filled with a person in the hospital,” Dolan said. “And, normally we run at about 80% when we’re busy. Part of that is just all of the patients that are in the hospital with COVID that require so much nursing care that you can’t open other beds for elective surgery. 

“We’re struggling with staffing — having enough nurses and clinicians to take care of the patients that we do have in the hospital,” Dolan added. “We’ve seen turnover that’s far greater than anything we’ve had historically, and we’ve been somewhat buffered in our community. We have several great nursing schools in the area.”

Dolan does see some hope for unvaccinated people to get the shot.

“I’ve had a couple of my patients, who had COVID back in 2020,” he said. “They thought about the vaccine, but they felt like they were protected. 

“We’ve tested them to see if they have any residual antibodies against COVID. And, in the last two days, I’ve had two of them come back negative. They don’t have any antibodies left. So, I think, when they see those results, that will nudge them into getting the vaccine.”

A vaccine he’s personally seen a drastic difference in from patients a year ago.

“Last year, I had far less of my patients get infected with COVID and I had three of them die over about a three-month period,” Dolan said. “This year, I have had 10 times as many patients test positive for COVID, and I have not had a single one of my patients die from COVID this year and all of them, for the most part, are vaccinated.”

Gundersen also posted this week: “Gundersen providers are now caring for 40 to 50 patients with COVID-19 daily, most of them in our La Crosse Hospital. About 80% of those patients are unvaccinated. Since the start of the pandemic, Gundersen has cared for about 2,100 people hospitalized with COVID-19. This includes more than 850 patients since July 1, 2021, and more than 1,200 patients since January 1, 2021. Looking nationally, more than 125,000 new COVID cases being reported every day, and more than 1,000 Americans are dying every day from COVID according to the CDC.”

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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