The Wisconsin State Fair Park Exposition Center in West Allis.  The location will now house 530 beds to care for patients. (Photo from the Wisconsin State Fair website.)
The Wisconsin State Fair Park Exposition Center in West Allis. The location will now house 530 beds to care for patients. (Photo from the Wisconsin State Fair website.)

State hits 1,500 deaths after highest single-day loss of life and most number of new coronavirus infections in a day.

Wisconsin will begin admitting as many as 50 coronavirus patients at a field hospital outside Milwaukee Wednesday, making it one of the only states in the country to need a site to treat the influx of coronavirus patients that will only grow as the state on Tuesday saw a record number of lives lost in a single day, record number of new cases in a single day, and highest number of patients on ventilators. 

“We are in constant communication with hospitals who may be ready to transfer patients as early as tomorrow,” Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the state Department of Health Services, told reporters Tuesday. 

The opening of the 530-bed facility in West Allis comes one day after Wisconsin broke its single-day record for new coronavirus cases, with 3,279 people testing positive for a  23% positivity rate and 34 deaths. 

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Wisconsin also set another record Tuesday, with 959 people hospitalized and 243 in intensive care units. There was also a big daily increase that set a new record for the number of patients on mechanical ventilators, 435, as tracked on the Wisconsin Hospital Association dashboard, though that figure is not broken down to show how many are specifically coronavirus patients.

The alternate care facility opens at a time when hospitals in northeast Wisconsin are at or nearing capacity, prompting a need for additional beds to treat patients and raising concerns about staffing levels and the mental health of frontline workers who have been battling the coronavirus for eight months. 

“We’ve brought in agency nurses,” said Chris Woleske, Bellin Health’s chief executive officer. “That’s something we hadn’t done during my 20 years at Bellin.”

The Bellin Health system includes facilities in roughly 25 cities in northeastern Wisconsin and a few in northwestern Michigan. Bellin Memorial is its primary hospital in Green Bay. Woleske said hiring agency nurses was “a necessity,” as 150 to 225 staff members are quarantining at any given time. As of Tuesday, 142 Bellin workers are in quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus in the community or at work, Woleske said. 

She said the spike in cases began around Labor Day. Prior to that weekend, the hospital was treating up to a dozen COVID-19 patients at a time. For the past month, that number has consistently been around 30. Last week, the hospital emergency department was overrun with patients, forcing staff to treat patients in the hallways, she said.

The health system recently converted a vacated nursing home building on its campus to additional hospital space. The space is not used to treat coronavirus patients but lower-acuity patients. Even with this extra bed space, Woleske said she is paying attention to the opening of the field hospital, also known as an alternative care facility, in West Allis.

“We have been participating in calls to learn what we can about it,” she said. “Obviously we wish it was closer. It is difficult for us to send our patients all the way down to West Allis for care so it will be out of an extreme sense of necessity before we will do that. But we are keeping our eye on that.”

Woleske was one of four hospital chief executive officers who spoke Tuesday at a discussion coordinated by the Wisconsin Health Network. 

Cathy Jackson, the CEO of Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, worked alongside other healthcare administrators in southeast Wisconsin to help work through the logistics of opening the field hospital. She stressed the West Allis facility is “not a hospital,” meaning patients with COVID-19 cannot be directly admitted for treatment. Instead, COVID-19 patients who are in the final phases of treatment and possibly days from being able to return home would be transferred to the West Allis facility until well enough to be discharged home. 

“There are strict criteria being used for when a patient can be transferred … from the amount of staffing, the oxygen needs of the patient, how much support a patient needs, and age limits,” Jackson said. “Our nursing leaders are looking this week at what patients we would transfer over there.” 

Damond Boatwright, regional president with SSMHealth, said his number one concern is the fatigue and stress of the workforce. He estimates that roughly 2% of the staff is quarantining, with the majority of those in quarantine contracting the virus outside of work. 

“I see emotional fatigue  in their eyes and on their faces because of the work that they’re doing,” Boatwright said. “And although it is commendable, I’m concerned.”

Boatwright said the SSMHealth system is looking at ways to move patients and staff within its network of hospitals and clinics. This will keep staffing levels adequate and may negate the need for SSMHealth to need the West Allis field hospital. 

“We feel confident we can get through this surge,” Boatwright said. 

After the online discussion ended, the state Department of Health Services provided its daily report on coronavirus cases which also noted 34 new deaths, the highest single-day loss of life in the pandemic. Wisconsin has now reached 1,508 total deaths, and the 109 lives lost in the past seven days is the first time the state has seen a triple-digit weekly death toll.

As for why Wisconsin is experiencing the third-highest number of daily coronavirus cases in the country—only Texas and California, states with five to six times the populations  of Wisconsin, have more—the healthcare executives cited pandemic fatigue, minimal adherence to mask wearing, lack of social distancing, too many large gatherings, and lack of leadership. 

“Some of the lawmakers and politicians both at the federal and state level … the divisiveness and not assuming the best of each other and not coming together in a collaborative way hasn’t helped us,” Woleske said. “If I could ask them to do one thing it would be to try and step in the shoes of the healthcare providers, the business owners, schools, and their constituents. Not listening to each other is not a good option.”

Christina Lieffring contributed to this report.