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A Wisconsin doctor lists the patients he’s lost to COVID-19. He wonders when people will take it seriously.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. – An ICU doctor is no stranger to tiredness. But tiredness of this magnitude is new. 

Sometimes, as few as four hours pass between the time Dr. Manar Alshahrouri arrives home at night from the hospital and the time he starts again in the morning.

Alshahrouri is a critical care doctor who has been treating COVID-19 patients at Hospital Sisters Health System’s St. Vincent and St. Mary’s facilities in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The past few weeks have been the busiest he’s ever been – he’s working later nights and more weekends as Wisconsin’s coronavirus cases surge and patients flood the hospitals.

Tired is all right, though, Alshahrouri said, as long as he and his colleagues are helping people get better and go home. 

The problem, of course, is that some people don’t go home. He carries a list of their names with him, a grim reminder of the toll of the pandemic.

“These are people who are gone forever,” Alshahrouri said, “from something that was preventable.” 

It’s why the pandemic has left him not just exhausted, but frustrated and deflated, too.

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Virus ravaging Wisconsin

Wisconsin health officials called the outbreak “a nightmare scenario” on Tuesday as more than 5,000 new cases and 64 deaths were reported, both single-day records. They warned people that things could continue to worsen for weeks or maybe months before turning around. And that spells even more trouble for already overtaxed hospitals and doctors like Alshahrouri who staff them. 

Nearly 1,400 people across Wisconsin were hospitalized with COVID-19, as of Tuesday afternoon. Just over a month ago, there were less than 350. Northeast Wisconsin hospitals, including Green Bay, were hit first and particularly hard by the new surge that began after Labor Day.

Where there is usually a park to host the state fair, officials opened a 530-bed overflow hospital on Oct. 14. The hospital, once described as the state’s “ultimate insurance policy,” had sat unused for months.

On Tuesday, five patients were being treated there.

Meanwhile, local hospital staffs are caring for a growing number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients. A pre-coronavirus intensive care unit might have had one really sick person, with most of the other patients recovering from surgery, Alshahrouri said. 

“We look at those days as ‘the good old days’ now,” he said. “Now we have ICUs full of that one (really sick) patient, over and over and over.” 

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Like carrying water with a sieve

By the time patients arrive to Alshahrouri’s care, they’re usually too sick to interact much. He encourages the most gravely ill to call family members before they are put on a ventilator – at that point, he’s not sure if they’ll ever speak again. He’s watched nurses break down crying after holding a patient’s hand or rubbing their back, standing in for family members who are not allowed to be there in the person’s last moments. 

The lives that were lost, and the “horrendous torture” families go through when a person is that sick, will stick with him forever, he said. It’s added suffering when someone suspects they might have been the one to pass the virus on to their loved one.

What patients know about where they got the virus has also changed as the pandemic plays out. When hundreds of Green Bay residents were sickened in the spring, most infections of which were tied to outbreaks at meatpacking plants and most of the patients he saw could pinpoint where they caught it, Alshahrouri said. 

Now, most patients don’t know where they could have contracted the virus – a sure sign that community spread is rampant. He called the spring outbreak “a warm-up act” to what he’s faced with now. 

Yet some Wisconsinites continue to be cavalier, brushing off the virus or viewing concerns about it as a political stunt. The way those people acted has rocked Alshahrouri’s faith in humanity.

He kept away from his young son for nine weeks during the spring to protect him from what his father could possibly bring home from the hospital. He’s making calls to families to inform them someone has died, and at the same time watching people defy masking and distancing guidelines.

The latest effort to strike down Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate, which state GOP leaders supported in court, leaves him struggling to find words. 

“That is something, I’ll tell you. I don’t know where to go with that,” Alshahrouri said. “That really, really shook my beliefs.” 

Medical textbooks describe the history of pandemics, specifically how the fatigue that causes people to flout safety measures can do the most damage. It’s surreal to see it happening in real time, he said. 

Alshahrouri will keep doing the work each day, bouncing between HSHS’ Green Bay hospitals and clocking many more late-night shifts. Some of the 5,000-plus people who got a COVID-19 diagnosis Tuesday will need a hospital, and some will need the ICU. Some will need his ICU. He’ll be ready. 

But lately, he said, the job feels like carrying water with a sieve. 

Follow health reporter Madeline Heim on Twitter at @madeline_heim

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