Washington DC Convention Center To Turn Into Facility To Treat COVID-19 Patients
FILE - A physician gives reporters a tour of a field hospital in Washington, DC designed to treat coronavirus patients, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and members of the National Guard, May 11, 2020. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Hospital space, available staff being stretched to their limits as coronavirus claims 16 more lives.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday that the state has officially activated the alternative care facility at State Fair Park in West Allis in response to the continued surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

The State Fair Park field hospital was set up in April but had not yet been put to use, as hospitals were able to manage their load of COVID-19 patients. However, as Wisconsin became one of the biggest pandemic hot spots in the country, hospitalizations jumped from 287 on Sept. 2 to 853 as of Tuesday, 216 of them in intensive care, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. The number leapt again Wednesday to 873 hospital patients with COVID-19, 219 in intensive care.

Wednesday’s daily report from the Department of Health Services noted 16 additional deaths, bringing to 1,415 the number of lives lost in the pandemic in Wisconsin.

“Unfortunately, today we announced we have received a request to open our alternative care facility in Milwaukee [County] due to increased COVID-19 hospitalizations and the strain this surge is placing on our health care systems,” Evers said in a call with reporters following the announcement. “We obviously hoped this day wouldn’t come, but unfortunately Wisconsin is in a much different and much more dire place today, and our health care systems are being overwhelmed.”

The alternative care facility at State Fair Park will be used for patients who still require medical care but may not need the resources a hospital can provide, said Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm. 

These patients would be those who are between the ages of 18 and 70, and have been hospitalized for 24-48 hours before being transferred to the alternate facility, said Deb Standridge, CEO of the State Fair Park Alternate Care Facility.

“Patients there would be relatively healthy, be able to ambulate on their own or have the assistance of one person,” Standridge said. “And they would need more oxygen therapy, they may need additional IV medications or other types of medications to ensure they are healthy enough to be discharged home.”

Palm said it will take about a week for the facility to be ready to take patients because it was “moth-balled” for so long. Standridge said the facility has generally been kept up-to-date, but certain things like linens and staffing need to be brought back.

Since Sept. 1, Wisconsin’s total coronavirus cases grew from 76,584 to 138,698 as of Wednesday, according to the Department of Health Services. Deaths rose from 1,130 to 1,415 in that same timeframe.

Palm said many hospitals in northeastern and southeastern Wisconsin are operating at or above 90% of their intensive care unit capacity. And beyond bed space, Palm said, is the strain of  staffing those hospitals due to the number of health care workers who have to isolate themselves when exposed to the coronavirus, often outside of the workplace. 

The state established a second alternate care facility in April at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. That facility was not activated as of Wednesday.

“We will make that decision [of whether to open the Alliant facility] in conjunction with the local folks,” Palm said. 

Palm said the Madison facility “is not flip-switch ready” like the State Fair Park field hospital and would take additional time to set up if it is needed.

Of the state’s 72 counties, 55 are at a “very high disease activity level,” said Palm, compared to 45 last week. The other 17 counties are at a high level.

The Wednesday DHS report noted 2,319 new coronavirus infections, putting it among the top 10 days with the highest volume of new cases.

[Editor’s Note: The Wisconsin Hospital Association dashboard listed the number of patients in intensive care on Tuesday as 261 and was listed as such in our original story. It has been corrected to 216, which was still a new record figure until Wednesday’s 219.]