MILWAUKEE (CN) — Wisconsin officials opened a field hospital at the site of its previously canceled state fair on Wednesday, turning a contingency plan into a necessary reality as the Badger State struggles to rein in one of the worst coronavirus surges in the nation.
Constructed in April with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local subcontractors, the “alternative care facility” at the Wisconsin State Fair Park Exhibition Center just south of Milwaukee in the city of West Allis was built out of an abundance of caution early in the Covid-19 pandemic as a backup plan in case state hospitals became overwhelmed by virus patients.
But as confirmed infections, hospitalizations and deaths climbed recently—earning Wisconsin the unenviable status as one of America’s virus hotspots—Democratic Governor Tony Evers moved last Wednesday to open the Milwaukee-area facility and begin accepting patients.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Administration, the facility is constructed for 530 patient spaces, including 296 with in-line oxygen, but could be expanded to accommodate 754 total beds. The facility is designed for patients who are not seriously ill transferred from area hospitals, which have to hit 80% of their Covid-19 patient capacity to be eligible to transfer patients.
Funding for the facility will come from a $445 million surge reserve fund set aside by Evers, which stems from federal CARES Act money and other sources. So far 200 people have signed up to work at the facility, including state employees, Wisconsin National Guard members and volunteers.
Wisconsin has been setting and breaking its own coronavirus records at an alarmingly routine pace over the last month, but just the most recent numbers are staggering.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Health Services, or DHS, tallied 3,279 new cases of the virus with 34 deaths, both daily records. Those additions bring Wisconsin to 155,471 total infections and 1,508 deaths from an overall population of just under 6 million.
While in the pandemic’s early stages the coronavirus was thought by some to be a southern Wisconsin problem surrounding urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, the recent spike in activity has mainly come from the state’s northeast, in particular the state’s Fox Valley region.
DHS maps confirm a pronounced surge in the Fox Valley and nearby, showing disproportionate upticks in counties like Outagamie, Winnebago, Oconto and Brown, which are home to cities like Appleton and Green Bay but also include a fair amount of rural farmlands.
The department’s figures also show that 55 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have a “very high” rate of virus activity, 83% of the state’s hospital beds are in use in addition to 85% of all ICU beds, and Covid-19 patient hospitalizations are growing in nearly every part of the state.
According to local public health experts, Wisconsin’s current trend has been caused by fairly unsurprising factors but will only be mitigated by drastic behavioral changes before one of the state’s famously cold winters drives people indoors en masse.
Dr. Nasia Safdar, executive director for infection control at UW Health, said that “people have become fatigued and some of the things that are required to halt transmission are becoming harder,” which includes the now-rote lineup of social distancing, face coverings and vigilant hand washing.
Once case diffusion begins somewhere, Safdar said, it can be difficult to counteract. The doctor compared it to “a drop of paint in a glass of water: once its colored that water, there’s nothing you can really do for that specific glass.”
Amanda Simanek, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said one can “trace this back to reopening the state prematurely” after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down an extension to Evers’ statewide lockdown order in May.