State News

COVID-19 field hospital opens at state fairgrounds as cases skyrocket

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Wisconsin opened a field hospital for COVID-19 patients at the Wisconsin State Fair Park Wednesday morning to alleviate stress on state hospitals that have seen cases skyrocket in the last month.

The field hospital’s opening comes nearly five months after it was created by an executive order. The field hospital had stayed closed over those months, but due to the surge in COVID-19 in recent weeks, hospitals in the region asked for it to be opened.

“We hoped this day wouldn’t come, but unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a much different, more dire place today and our healthcare systems are beginning to become overwhelmed by the surge of COVID-19 cases,” Gov. Evers said in a release last week.

The field hospital — which is designed for patients recovering from the virus but still in need of a low level of care — opened with 50 beds available. If the need arises for the site to scale up, it could serve as many as 530 patients, though it will not accept walk-in’s.

"[The facility] is an alternative to a hospital setting. So a patient would be transferred, from a hospital somewhere in the state, down to the alternate care facility," Deb Standridge, CEO of the Wisconsin State Fair Park Alternative Care Facility, said during an Oct. 14 media briefing.

There are currently no patients at the field hospital, which is located west of Milwaukee. However, Standridge said the facility is expecting some as early as Thursday morning.

Patients who decide to transfer will be transported to the field hospital by ambulance, with the expectation they will need just three to six days to recover. The cost of both the ambulance and care received at the field hospital is covered by $400 million in federal CARES Act money Wisconsin has saved.

Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, 57 are showing 'very high' activity for COVID-19, while the remaining 15 show ‘high’ activity, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said in the briefing.

As of Wednesday, 1,017 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Wisconsin and 246 were in intensive care, nearly triple the numbers from a month ago. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is reporting over 83 percent use of both hospital and ICU beds.

“It was our fervent hope we wouldn’t have to use the alternate care facility,” Van Dijk said during the briefing. “But the reality is that we are in crisis here in Wisconsin.”

Things could still get worse

Wisconsin is arguably the epicenter of COVID-19 in America right now, trailing only the Dakotas and Montana in daily average cases per 100,000 people. 

Cases continue to climb across the board, with DHS reporting a 20.3 percent seven-day positivity rate, a number that has steadily risen since June and skyrocketed in the last four weeks.

Wisconsin saw an outbreak of cases on college campuses at the beginning of September, which officials have said has leaked into surrounding communities. Officials have also warned that the situation will continue to get worse if people do not change their behavior.

“This is not going to go away any time soon,” Van Dijk said. “When we see [over 3,000] cases a day we can expect more people to need hospitalization. We know the trajectory does not look good — we need to be prepared and we need to take action to make the curve reverse.”

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report found that pandemic fatigue has been setting in across the state as well — which is likely a factor in the outbreak of cases. And while a recent decision by a Circuit Court judge upheld Gov. Evers mask mandate, the decision is likely to be appealed to a higher court.

Other efforts by Evers to slow the spread have been hamstrung by GOP lawsuits, dating back to the May State Supreme Court decision to strike down Wisconsin’s stay-at-home order.

A county judge also temporarily blocked an emergency order Wednesday morning that restricted public buildings and gatherings to 25 percent capacity, while a lawsuit brought by the Tavern League of Wisconsin is litigated. The decision will force DHS attorneys to appear in court on Monday to defend the order. 

“The order we wrote was in compliance with the Supreme Court, and our attorneys are looking at the case now,” Van Dijk said. “But order or no order, I strongly encourage people in the state to avoid any type of mass gathering.”

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