File photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on UnSplash

ELKHORN — Walworth County health officials are warning the public to take appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions as local hospitals report a surge in emergency department patients and critically low ICU bed availability.

Officials say a jump in COVID-19 patients along with staffing shortages are limiting the amount of ICU beds available.

The warning comes from an emergency operations work group comprised of officials from Walworth County Public Health, the Walworth County Sheriff’s Office, Mercyhealth and Advocate Aurora Health, according to a news release.

Mercyhealth Vice President Jeni Hallatt issued the following statement:

“Our hospitals are experiencing a high volume of inpatients, limiting hospital beds and putting a strain on resources. Due to these high volumes, overall bed availability is at critical levels.

When feeling ill, patients should contact their primary care provider. The public is also encouraged to utilize telehealth options. Patients who need to visit the ED should be prepared to face extended wait times due to our critical capacity.

To help control this critical situation, we are asking the public to help with COVID-19 safety measures, which include getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and socially distancing when appropriate.”

According to Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) data, Walworth County saw a 20-percent increase in hospital bed occupancy between November and December.

“Our hospitals have been at peak census for hospital status, medical-surgical, and ICU status for most of the past month,” said Walworth County Public Health Epidemiologist Rebecca Kraetz.

“A large contributing factor to this low bed availability is a critical staffing shortage in our hospitals, particularly in nurses and other critical healthcare personnel. In a recent DHS COVID update, it was discussed that there are not enough critical care personnel to account for the surge of patients we are seeing statewide. A certain number of staff are needed per bed, and there is not sufficient human resources available to add more beds.”

In addition to staffing challenges, a recent uptick in COVID hospitalizations is further complicating the situation. Currently, about one-third of emergency department visits are COVID-related. As of Dec. 5, COVID patients occupy 58 percent of the county’s ICU beds and 42 percent of inpatient beds.

“Like other health care providers in Wisconsin and Illinois, we’re seeing COVID-19 hospitalizations rise steadily,” says Chief Medical Officer Tedmond O’Reilly, MD, FAAFP, CPE, Advocate Aurora Burlington-Walworth Patient Service Area. “Over the past month, our COVID-19 inpatient census has more than doubled. The best way to prevent COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, and if it’s been long enough since your first shot(s), to get boosted. The vaccines are the most effective tool we have to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and deaths.”

Public Health is also seeing an increase in reports of non-COVID respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses. “This time of year we tend to see more seasonal viruses, such as influenza and viral gastroenteritis,” says Public Health Officer Erica Bergstrom. “So while COVID cases are going up, these other illnesses will also begin placing a higher burden on our health care system. That’s why it is so important to get vaccinated for COVID and flu, wash your hands, and stay home when you are sick.” 

For COVID-19 testing and vaccine information, please contact Walworth County Public Health at (262) 741-3200, email, follow us on Facebook or visit us online at

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By Staff Report

Walworth County Community News