An untapped resource for fighting COVID-19

Two state-owned care facilities in Madison could provide relief if hospitals become overwhelmed

Building 6 at the Central Wisconsin Center. The complex has a large collection of empty spaces the could be used in an emergency. (Photo by Bill Lueders)
Building 6 at the Central Wisconsin Center. The complex has a large collection of empty spaces the could be used in an emergency. (Photo by Bill Lueders)

Lately, on daily walks through my neighborhood, I’ve been wondering: What if Wisconsin were to experience some sort of public health crisis, creating a sudden need for emergency facilities? 

Perhaps it might. 

If so, would it interest anyone to know that there is a sprawling complex of state-owned buildings, including some that appear under-utilized or not in use at all, in a relatively compact area on Madison’s north side? 

Perhaps it would.

The reason I think about this on my walks is that I’m usually walking on the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute (MMHI) and the adjacent Central Wisconsin Center (CWC) — both within, well, walking distance of my home. And what I see is a significant number of possibly useful buildings already under the aegis of the state Department of Health Services.

When I emailed MMHI Director Gregory Van Rybroek about the possibility of using these seemingly empty buildings as emergency shelters, he politely replied: “It turns out that the buildings on [these] grounds only appear empty. Many of them are either in use or are in a condition where they are not usable. And, as it happens, some of them are being fixed up right now, but the work is not far enough along for any use.”

Van Rybroek added, “Wisconsin Emergency Operations is working with all areas of government on planning related to capacity, and how any capacity opportunities might be helpful for coronavirus outbreaks.” He said he would pass along my suggestion.

I wrote Van Rybroek back: “Thanks, Greg. I bet the buildings at MMHI are closer to being usable in a pinch than other buildings that don’t even exist.” 

A neighbor who works for the state told me that people within government have long called for rehabbing some of these buildings for other uses. My friend Tag Evers, a Madison alderperson, says authorities should look into whether these buildings can be pressed into service during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“If the hospitals get overwhelmed, we’re going to need places to put people,” Evers says. “We could either start from scratch and build field hospitals on soccer fields, or we can take existing structures and refurbish them.”

As an almost daily visitor to the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute and Central Wisconsin Center, a facility for people with severe developmental disabilities, I can attest that many of the buildings are indeed in active use. 

On the MMHI side, these include Goodland Hall, with its spirals of razor wire atop tall fencing to contain those found not guilty of criminal activity by reason of mental illness, the Juvenile Treatment Center in the Lorenz Hall Annex, and the administrative building where Van Rybroek works. The power plant is always humming.

Mendota's Recreation Hall (photo by Bill Lueders).
Mendota’s Recreation Hall (photo by Bill Lueders).

But a number of MMHI buildings are apparently vacant or in minimal use. These include two split-level buildings, Cottage A and Cottage B, that once housed the children’s treatment unit and were used a few years back by nonprofit groups during a period of transition; Recreation Hall, a large building overlooking the lake that appears to have been used in the past as a gym and as a theater (it is cluttered with all kinds of junk); a half-timbered cottage-style dormitory labeled on one map as “Student Apartments”; and a two-story house that formerly served as living quarters for the complex’s superintendent.

Mendota student apartments (photo by Bill Lueders)
Mendota student apartments (photo by Bill Lueders)

Then there are four Tudor-inspired cottages, labeled #3, #4, #1, and #10. Building #10 is clearly in use; building #3 is labeled “Electrical Shop” but is not clearly in use; the others appear vacant. One of them used to be Kajsiab House, a treatment facility run by Journey Mental Health Center, which closed in 2018. The buildings look a bit like barracks, and seem to have been intended as living quarters. 

Building #14 at Mendota (Photo by Bill Lueders)
Building #14 at Mendota (Photo by Bill Lueders)

Building #14 also looks habitable — it even has air conditioners in some windows —but there doesn’t seem to be anyone at home. Then there is Building #8, labeled a chapel and apparently set up for that purpose.

The Mendota Chapel (photo by Bill Lueders)
The Mendota Chapel (photo by Bill Lueders)

There is no way of knowing, from the outside, whether these buildings are habitable or provide the sort of separation that the current pandemic requires. 

Perhaps not.

Mendota Mental Health Institute Memorial Hospital (photo by Bill Lueders)
Mendota Mental Health Institute Memorial Hospital (photo by Bill Lueders)

The MMHI grounds also contain an actual former hospital, Wisconsin Memorial Hospital, which was built in the early 1920s and closed in the mid-1990s. This building, more than any other on the grounds, shows outward signs of disrepair, including boarded-up windows and a hazard sign. 

A decade ago, developer Gary Gorman proposed renovating the hospital as a drug and alcohol treatment facility, but the cost estimates topped $6 million and nothing ever came of it.

CWC Gee Hall (photo by Bill Lueders)
CWC Gee Hall (photo by Bill Lueders)

At the Central Wisconsin Center, there are only two apparently vacant buildings, but both look to be at least as large as the small Catholic elementary school I attended as a child: Building #5, also known as Gee Hall, and Building #6. Both appear to have been designed as living units.

CWC Building #6 (photo by Bill Lueders)
CWC Building #6 (photo by Bill Lueders)

The two centers also contain vast tracts of open land and acres of parking. Might this be an improvement over building field hospitals on soccer fields? 

It’s likely, of course, that these buildings are in need of serious repair, as Van Rybroek contends. But might they not, in a pinch, be preferable to nothing? And might it make sense to start working toward this possible use now, rather than wait and do nothing, the coronavirus approach that has been taken by Donald Trump? 

DHS spokespeople Elizabeth Goodsitt and Jennifer Miller did not respond to emails over two days asking “whether it may be possible, in preparation for a possibly worsening COVID-19 crisis, to make emergency use” of buildings on the MMHI and CWC grounds.

No doubt, the administrators of both facilities have their hands full dealing with their large populations of highly vulnerable residents. But as the number of state COVID-19 cases continues to climb, it may make sense to get them the extra help they need to look into converting some of these buildings to emergency use.

There seems to be no sign of that happening.

Perhaps there should be. 

This article is being simultaneously published by the Wisconsin Examiner, Isthmus, and The Progressive.