COVID-19 Field Hospital At Wisconsin State Fair Park Opens Wednesday

Site To Provide Care For Recovering Patients, Freeing Up Space At Hospitals Strained By Surge In Cases

the front gates of the Wisconsin State Fair
Gates are closed Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, at State Fair Park in West Allis. Angela Major/WPR

Wisconsin will open a field hospital for COVID-19 patients Wednesday on the grounds of the Wisconsin State Fair to help hospitals around the state that are strained by increased hospitalizations from the disease. The move comes more than five months after Gov. Tony Evers laid the groundwork for such a facility in late April by issuing an emergency order.

Last week, when the opening of the alternate care facility at State Fair Park in West Allis was announced, officials said up to 50 patients could initially be transferred to the site, which is designed for patients who need limited care as they recover from COVID-19 but still aren’t well enough to go home. As the site scales up, it could eventually treat up to 530 patients.

“It’s an alternative to a hospital setting. So a patient would be transferred, potentially from a Fox Valley hospital, down to the alternate care facility,” said Deb Standridge, CEO of the Wisconsin State Fair Park Alternative Care Facility, during an Oct. 7 media briefing.

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Standridge said teenage as well as elderly patients who have been hospitalized for two days or less will recover at the facility, which has supplemental oxygen, IV treatments and other medications.

The alternative care facility is designed to help hospitals around the state manage a record number of patients at a time when many facilities also have staff shortages due to COVID-19 exposure or illness.

At Bellin Health in northeastern Wisconsin, space was so tight that some patients were treated in hallways, while the health system was also trying to shore up its workforce.

“We’ve had anywhere from 150 to 225 people on quarantine. Not all of those are hospital workers — some are from our clinics. However, two of our hospital physicians were out at the same time because of an exposure they had outside of the workplace. When that happens, we have to tap other resources,” said Bellin Health CEO Chris Woleske during an online Wisconsin Health News forum Tuesday.

three people in scrubs walk through a parking lot in front of the Exposition Center
People in scrubs exit the Exposition Center on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, at State Fair Park in West Allis. Angela Major/WPR

On Tuesday, 959 COVID-19 patients around the state were hospitalized, 243 in intensive care. The chief medical officer for the Wisconsin Hospital Association, Mark Kaufman, said last week that all seven of the state’s health care emergency readiness regions are seeing “record or near-record numbers of hospitalized COVID patients.”

The comments came as health care, business and local government groups announced a public relations campaign to encourage mask wearing and social distancing.

The Fox Valley has been one of the hardest-hit areas in the state. On Monday, state data showed there were 131 patients hospitalized there. In mid-September, there were a third that many patients.

Even places which until recently had stable hospitalization numbers have seen them shoot upward. On Monday, Public Health Madison Dane County had a record 74 people hospitalized. Officials note this is more than double what it was Oct. 1.

When the pandemic began this spring, field hospitals around the country were built to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Many of those alternate care facilities went unused, as efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 helped reduce the number of cases. In Chicago, McCormick Place was transformed into a field hospital by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but only served 29 patients.

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