Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin have reached a level not seen since January, prompting a renewed call for the public to get vaccinated as the more contagious delta variant drives cases up.

State data shows half the hospitals in Wisconsin have intensive care units operating at capacity. Hospital beds are filling up with 88 percent in use and there’s concern a continued increase in COVID-19 cases could lead to reductions in other medical care.

“On top of COVID, hospitals have to deal with all the conditions that people come to the hospital for on a daily basis: all the broken bones, all the chemotherapy for cancers,” said Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. John O’Horo. Mayo Clinic is based in Minnesota and has hospitals in Wisconsin.

Over the last two weeks, state data shows hospitalizations have grown the most western Wisconsin with an increase of 42 percent. The northern region of the state has seen a 24 percent increased, followed by the northeast with 23 percent and the southeast with 15 percent.

On September 9, there were 1,071 patients hospitalized across Wisconsin and about a third of them were in intensive care. There were five ICU beds available in western Wisconsin and only two in the north central region. Hospitalizations have stabilized in Dane County, but the community still has high levels of COVID-19 transmission, said local health director Janel Heinrich.

Public Health Madison & Dane County also extended and revised an indoor mask mandate it issued in mid-August as the delta variant started pushing new infections upward.

The new mask order lasts until October 8. It includes exemptions for playing a wind instrument that has a bell cover and presenters or performers who are 6 feet from a fully vaccinated audience. The initial order sparked criticism from performers as well as school band instructors who were worried the lack of exemptions would lead to canceled performances.

Seventy percent of Dane County residents are fully vaccinated, and Heinrich says that rate, along with masking, helped keep new infections from rising as fast as they have in other parts of the state. Since mid-August, COVID-19 cases have gone up 13 percent in the county. Some of those cases are in children who cannot be vaccinated.

“Pediatric cases have stabilized over the last month but are still higher than they were at this time last year,” she said. “This underscores the importance of consistent masking in schools and in child care settings.”

Larger school districts like Madison and Milwaukee are requiring staff and students to wear a mask, but the issue has sparked controversy in other districts around the state.

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