Health and Science

Coronavirus hospitalizations grow in the Midwest amid climbing cases — 'It's clearly a forest fire'

Key Points
  • Six states reached record high Covid-19 hospitalizations — based on a weekly average to smooth out the reporting — as of Friday, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project. 
  • Most of the states are based in the Midwest, including Missouri, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. 
  • HHS Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers on Friday that parts of the nation's upper Midwest and Northwest are experiencing "plain old community spread as we saw in the Southeast and Southwest."
In this May 11, 2020, file photo, Wisconsin National Guard members administer COVID-19 tests in a parking lot in Milwaukee.
Morry Gash | AP

Growing coronavirus outbreaks across the American West and Midwest have started to take an alarming turn as some states report growing Covid-19 hospitalizations and a shrinking supply of beds for patients. 

Six states reached record high Covid-19 hospitalizations, based on a weekly average to smooth out the reporting, as of Friday, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by the Covid Tracking Project, an independent volunteer organization launched by journalists at The Atlantic.  

Most of the states are based in the Midwest, including Missouri, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

There were at least 663 people in the hospital with Covid-19 in Wisconsin as of Friday, well beyond the state's previous highs in April when roughly 400 people were hospitalized. Only 19% of the state's hospital beds are available and 27% of the state's Covid-19 patients are in the intensive-care unit, according to its data dashboard

In Missouri, there were at least 1,137 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Friday, the state's highest number of patients so far, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Missouri, which tracks the weekly average of coronavirus patients, has reported a steady increase in patients and a slight decline in available intensive-care unit beds since early September.

Public health experts watch hospitalizations closely because they can indicate how severe an outbreak is in an area. It's considered a better measure than new cases because it's not as reliant on the availability of testing. 

Nationwide, coronavirus cases were growing by 5% or more, based on a weekly average, in 27 states as of Friday, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Kentucky, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Montana reached record-high averages. 

"What we're seeing is community based transmission right now in the upper Midwest and the Northwest," Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers on Friday during a U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing. 

"What we're facing now is just plain old community spread as we saw in the Southeast and Southwest that comes from individuals not practicing the three W's: wash your hands, watch your distance, wear your face coverings." 

Wisconsin reports 'alarming trends'

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers on Thursday urged residents to stay at home as much as possible and to wear face coverings when in public. Evers extended Wisconsin's mask mandate last week as he warned of an "alarming increase" in cases across the state, especially on college campuses. 

"I'm concerned about the alarming trends of Covid-19 we're seeing across our state," Evers reiterated during a press briefing Thursday, a day after the state reported 27 new Covid-19 deaths — it's highest daily total on record. 

Wisconsin reported 2,745 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, continuing a trend of climbing infections at a level the state has yet to witness in its response to the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins data. 

"For a long stretch there we were kind of smoldering along, but never really got to a point where we would say that our resources were overwhelmed," said Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician and the medical director for infection prevention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. 

"It was kind of a slow burn, and now it's clearly a forest fire," Safdar said.

The recent surge in Covid-19 cases is one of the first big challenges for Wisconsin since the start of the pandemic, she said, adding that "no one has a giant surplus" of supplies like hospital beds, personal protective equipment and health care workers. 

"I think this is probably the worst possible time for us to be seeing this because of the fact that there's the  pending flu season," Safdar said. 

Bellin Health, which runs a hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said in a statement that its emergency department has had several instances in the past week where it was at capacity and placed patients in beds in hallways, Reuters reported Thursday. 

Evers signed an emergency order that same day to ease licensing rules for health-care workers so they can practice in Wisconsin facilities and help with the surge of Covid-19 patients. 

A 'disturbing trend' in Nebraska 

Nebraska has also reported record-high numbers of Covid-19 hospitalizations this week. It's weekly average of patients grew by more than 16% compared with a week ago as of Friday, according to a CNBC analysis of Covid Tracking Project data. 

"We're seeing a disturbing trend with increasing hospitalizations and diminishing bed capacity," said Dr. Angela Hewlett, a member of the Infectious Disease Society of America and an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

"In our Omaha metro area, we currently have the highest number of hospitalizations in patients with Covid since the spring," she said. 

Daily coronavirus cases have grown by more than 37% compared with a week ago in Nebraska, moving to a seven-day average above 540 on Friday, according to Johns Hopkins data.

Most of Nebraska's positive cases are among those aged 20 to 34, according to the state's dashboard, but the coronavirus appears to now be infecting older adults who are at greater risk of serious illness, Hewlett said. 

"My concern is that we're sitting here on a curve and potentially we'll see an increasing number of deaths once our higher risk individuals become infected," she said. 

Iowa hospitalizations on the rise 

Iowa hospitals reported a more than 27% increase in Covid-19 patients on Friday compared with a week ago, climbing toward record highs last seen in May, according to Covid Tracking Project data. 

On Friday, Gov. Kim Reynolds allowed bars, restaurants, breweries and wineries to reopen in Johnson and Story counties, two of Iowa's most populated areas where the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are located.

The businesses were shuttered in late August as coronavirus cases climbed, students returned to university campuses for the fall semester and in-person classes resume at K-12 schools. Some infectious disease experts applauded the actions but said they were likely "too little too late." 

As hospitalizations in Iowa rise, the problem goes beyond the state's hospital bed and ventilator capacity, said Dr. Megan Srinivas,  an infectious disease physician based in Fort Dodge. 

"There's also the issue of staffing and needing nurses, doctors," she said. "As we have hospitalizations increase, that is really going to be a limiting factor, especially in many rural parts of the state." 

VIDEO4:4104:41
President Trump walks to Marine One before heading over to Walter Reed