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Illness, stress fill a COVID-19 unit as Wisconsin leaders stalemate

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Posted at 10:54 AM, Nov 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-20 11:54:13-05

The exterior of University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin on Tuesday afternoon looked remarkably ordinary. A line of cars queued outside of the parking garage, where drivers must still push a button and grab a ticket before entering. Patients streamed in and out of the building. The first hint that these are extraordinary times: everyone wore masks as screeners checked visitors’ symptoms and temperatures.

Parts of the COVID-19 unit three floors upstairs also looked unspectacular. The floor was designed for general care — a little bit of everything — when a pandemic isn’t raging. But Tuesday marked one year since the coronavirus was first detected in China, beginning its destructive journey around the world.

Wisconsin on Tuesday reported a single-day record 92 deaths linked to the virus, pushing the state’s full pandemic death count to 2,741. (State officials have since reported 135 additional deaths in two days.) Some 2,277 COVID-19 patients filled 89% of the state’s available hospital beds Tuesday. Of those patients, 177 were in Dane County, home to University Hospital.

The hospital currently has five COVID units, plus another unit in a facility across town. The hospital repurposed this unit in March when it started admitting significant numbers of coronavirus-infected patients. Negative air pressure in each room prevents the virus from drifting into the hallway. Patients are now consistently filling all 28 of the unit’s beds, said Mary Lowe, a nursing assistant who has worked in the unit since 2019.

She recalls seeing patients as young as 20 years and as old as 91.

The unit was often busy before the pandemic, she said, but these days, she often feels overwhelmed. These patients are severely ill. Lowe’s work brings her in direct contact with seven or eight COVID patients a day, helping them with everything from eating to using the restroom and bathing. She tries to minimize the number of visits to each room — to protect herself and preserve scarce protective gear. That means doing more with each visit.

“There’s just so much to do,” said Lowe.

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