State opens backup healthcare facility in West Allis

    The alternate care facility for recovering COVID-19 patients, which opened on Wednesday, Oct. 14, is located in the Wisconsin Exposition Center at State Fair Park in West Allis. (Photo by Sulfur CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Wisconsin’s alternate healthcare facility opened Wednesday for recovering COVID-19 patients who aren’t ready to go home yet but can be released to a less-intensive setting than a hospital.

    The facility, located at State Fair Park in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, was set up in April by the state Department of Health Services (DHS) with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    When it was originally constructed, the site was chosen because the COVID-19 pandemic in the state was most prevalent in  southeastern Wisconsin, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, DHS deputy secretary, in a briefing for reporters Wednesday.

    The statewide Safer at Home order was successful in helping to curb the spread of the virus in March, April and early May, so that hospitals didn’t experience the kind of surge for which the facility would be needed.

    Since the beginning of September, however, the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus has increased rapidly, with three times the number newly identified cases a day compared with a month ago.

    “The number of patients of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is at an all time high” in the state, Van Dijk said. “That number is also growing. Many of our ICUs [intensive care units] are strained, and in every region of our state has one or more hospitals reporting current and imminent staff shortages.”

    The facility is prepared to take 50 patients immediately and will be able to accommodate up to 530. Although no patients had been admitted as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, Deb Standridge, the facility CEO, said staff had been in contact with hospitals throughout the state to discuss potential patient transfers.

    Standridge said patients brought to the facility would be adults ages 18 to 70 in the last few days of normal hospitalization but not ready to go home. They might need oxygen therapy, some additional medication and other forms of care, she said. But their temperature should be no higher than 100 degrees, their blood pressure and pulse in the normal range, and they should be able to move on their own or with one person helping.

    Patients would be transported to the facility under arrangements made by the hospital where they were being treated. Patients whose condition worsens after they’re admitted to the facility would be transferred to a nearby acute-care hospital if necessary, Standridge said.

    Transportation to and from the facility as well as treatment there will be without charge to the patient or the patient’s insurer, said Standridge. The costs for setting up and operating the facility is being covered by about $400 million set aside from Wisconsin’s allotment under the federal CARES Act.

    Van Dijk said that, even if the current wave of infections eases and with it the pressure on hospitals, the facility will be kept available to use again in the event of a new surge, and not taken down “until we have evidence that this pandemic has passed.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.