Wisconsin Activates Field Hospital Amid Record Coronavirus Surge

Wisconsin has been breaking its own coronavirus records at an alarmingly routine pace over the last month, forcing the governor to turn to a backup plan.  

An overhead view inside the Milwaukee Covid-19 field hospital. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Administration)

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.

(A time-lapse video of the Milwaukee field hospital’s construction, courtesy of the Wisconsin Department of Administration)

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.

A patient space is seen at the Milwaukee Covid-19 field hospital. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Administration)

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.

As Wisconsinites began to travel and increase social interactions over the summer under a patchwork of disparate local public health restrictions, the virus simply moved around with them, Simanek said, something she said was “in many ways very predictable” even though she and other public health experts “have been saying the same things since May.”

The professor advised that people have to be cautious and considerate in reining in their social bubbles despite being worn down, but she conceded that “I don’t see us miraculously flattening the curve in the next month” before cold weather and the holidays arrive.

Recent polls, including one released by Marquette University Law School last Wednesday, indicate most Wisconsinites take the novel coronavirus seriously and support the steps required on an individual level to stymie its spread.

Sixty-one percent of those surveyed in the Marquette poll said they are either very or somewhat worried about contracting the coronavirus and 72% agreed that masks should be required in public places, an attitude that exceeds 60% support in every region of Wisconsin.

But, like everything else in Wisconsin, support for wearing something on your face to alleviate a potentially deadly virus with no known cure is tainted by partisanship, the poll shows.

Whereas 98% of Democrats and 66% of Independents agreed with a mask requirement, 49% of Republicans polled disagreed with it, although that number is down somewhat from the 54% disagreement in a previous Marquette poll from August and early September—that is, before the current surge cropped up in earnest.

Health care workers confer at a nursing station inside the Milwaukee Covid-19 field hospital. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Administration)

Policymakers in the Badger State’s government—divided between the Democratic executive branch and the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature—have been at constant odds over the state’s coronavirus response from the jump, mired in a recurring pattern where the governor enacts a preventative measure without legislative say-so, the legislature or state conservatives sue his administration over it and the people are left with mixed messaging and less than clearly defined guidelines.

Since the state high court ended Evers’ statewide lockdown and said any Covid-19 response must involve the legislature more than five months ago, the only concrete action the legislature has taken over the coronavirus came Monday when a Republican-controlled committee submitted the governor’s recent limit on public gatherings to formal rulemaking procedures, which ultimately could result in the measure being undone within 30 days.

This occurred the same day a northern Wisconsin circuit court judge upheld the governor’s mask mandate requiring residents to wear face coverings when inside and in public.

Wednesday morning, however, another Wisconsin circuit court judge put Evers’ public gatherings mandate on hold while DHS and its chief get sued by the state’s tavern lobby and a Sawyer County restaurant, which claim the mandate’s 25% capacity limit for bars and restaurants is prohibitively restrictive and harmful for already struggling small businesses.

Simanek said she feels for hurting businesses but deemed the 25% capacity limit “a good effort to stem the recent spread” and advocated for a different approach involving financial subsidies that would incentivize businesses to remain closed.

Looking forward, both Simanek and Safdar are working hard to get the word out about key precautions and research new ways to beat back Covid-19.

Simanek pushed for everyone to get a flu shot, as influenza season is approaching and since flu symptoms and coronavirus symptoms can be similar, health care systems could become further overwhelmed trying to test and treat patients for both.

Safdar and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine are conducting a research study among health care worker volunteers to determine the efficacy of preventing Covid-19 transmission with antiseptic nose swabs and mouthwash “so we can learn if this is a viable option going forward,” Safdar said.

The antiseptic materials are being tested for potentially virucidal qualities, with the goal being that “even if you get the virus, it would die on contact,” according to Safdar.

Initially limited to those living in Wisconsin, health care workers nationwide can now volunteer to participate in the study.

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