2020 marked the Wisconsin Hospital Association’s 100th anniversary …. and what a time for that! We’re out of adjectives for a year that challenged our state’s health system in ways unfathomable just 10 months ago, and not experienced since a century ago. But Wisconsin health care is poised to emerge stronger and better after COVID-19.

Updated Playbooks, New Strategies
COVID this spring was largely a dry-run, patients not surging heavily into Wisconsin hospitals until the third and fourth quarters. As the numbers of COVID inpatients increased drastically in September, hospitals utilized their earlier experiences and planning to reprioritize care, reallocate resources and retool space. With determination and creativity, Wisconsin hospitals added capacity for over 1,400 inpatients in order to absorb the COVID wave, restructuring lobbies, waiting rooms and even ambulance garages to handle patient overflow and safely treat both COVID and non-COVID patients. All this while hospitals massively expanded their COVID testing capacity and conducting the majority community testing across our state.

Built to Bend … Can’t Allow to Break
Staffing that expanded capacity, in a highly contagious pandemic, has proven an immense challenge. Community spread of COVID has taken thousands of Wisconsin heath care workers out of the fight at the same time demand surges. Hospitals have used every staffing tool and resource to cope, but neither the supply nor resiliency of our incredible heath care workers are infinite. The sustained, COVID-caused maximum capacity operation of hospitals, enabled by seemingly endless shifts behind masks, gowns and shields, and filled with tragic losses of life (over 4,700 Wisconsin COVID deaths), has taken a toll on the state’s health care workforce. Wisconsin’s nurses, doctors, technicians, custodians, administrators, aids, food service workers and many others working to keep us healthy and safe have truly earned the title “Hero”.

Like other sectors, the pandemic has inflicted serious financial damage on health care. A federal directive in March that postponed non-emergency hospital care translated into approximately $2.5 billion in net losses for Wisconsin hospitals over four months. Delayed care, whether by government mandate or capacity conserving necessity, has other serious, yet underappreciated, ramifications. One study found that 41% of U.S. adults avoided medical care due to the pandemic through June 30. Applying lessons learned in the spring, hospitals are doing everything possible to minimize “crowd-out” of non-COVID care during the fall and winter surge. This is one of the many reasons slowing down COVID is a statewide, multi-industry imperative.

Teaming Up to Stop COVID
In September, as COVID began raging in earnest here, WHA led the creation of a multi-industry coalition “Stop the COVID Spread!”, a diverse group intent on cutting through the politicization of COVID to drive widespread adoption of simple, yet critical, healthy behaviors. Since its launch in October, the “Stop the COVID Spread!” coalition has grown to more than 125 Wisconsin organizations and aired five separate messaging campaigns. The Wisconsin Bankers Association was one of the first to lend its name and support to this effort … thank you, WBA!

“Out of Adversity Comes Opportunity”

Like many industries, health care will be forever changed by COVID and so, we hope, will government. Wisconsin’s hospitals initiated and refined new methods of care and resource use that are driving better outcomes and helping government embrace regulatory changes today and substantiate more reform in the future. Pandemic-driven innovation, from expedited physician and nurse licensure to expanded use and acceptance of telehealth to new uses for hospital space, will maximize health care quality, access and affordability long after COVID recedes.

I firmly believe Wisconsin’s nation-leading hospitals and health systems will emerge from COVID-19 stronger and better than ever.