State will use backup facility for COVID-19 patients for the first time

    Backup health care facility for COVID patients
    The Milwaukee Alternate Care Facility at State Fair Park in West Allis under construction in the spring of 2020. (Screen capture from video provided by Wisconsin Department of Administration and Department of Health Services)

    As hospitals around the state report they are overwhelmed with patients, a backup facility at State Fair Park in suburban Milwaukee will begin taking COVID-19 patients next week.

    Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday that the Alternate Care Facility (ACF) will open Wednesday, Oct. 14, to receive patients who are less severely ill, most likely after having partially recovered in the hospital. The facility is not a walk-in clinic; the state will coordinate with hospitals and healthcare providers in transferring patients to the facility.

    “Our hospital system is strained and in some areas of the state reaching capacity and at risk of being overwhelmed,” stated Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), in the announcement from the governor’s office.

    The pressure on hospitals is most acute in the Fox Valley and northeastern Wisconsin, Palm told reporters at a DHS media briefing Wednesday, and the decision to open the facility at State Fair Park was made in consultation with officials in that region.

    As of Wednesday, DHS reported 138,698 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, including 1,415 deaths. Palm said that disease activity is “very high” in Wisconsin overall, as well as in 55 of the state’s 72 counties, and “high” in the rest.

    Deb Standridge, CEO of the Wisconsin State Fair Park Alternate Care Facility. (Screen capture from DHS media briefing video, 10/7/2020)

    The facility will accommodate 50 patients to start with the capacity for expansion that could rise to 530 people. In the week until it opens, it will undergo deep cleaning to sanitize it before use, said Deb Standridge, the facility’s CEO. 

    The state first set up the facility in the spring as part of its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but until now it has not had to be used. The aim was to provide relief to hospitals in the event of a major surge of patients from the illness.

    The Evers administration has credited the state’s Health Emergency declaration in the spring, and the Safer at Home order that followed it from March 25 until May 13, with helping avoid an overflow crisis then. But since Sept. 7, when Wisconsin hospitals had 289 patients with COVID-19, occupancy has nearly tripled, to 853 patients as of Tuesday, Oct. 6, Evers said.

    The number of intensive care unit patients with COVID-19 in the state is up by 27% from a week ago, Palm said, and up 60% in three of the state’s health care regions. 

    “We are one of only a few states in the country to need to open an alternate care facility,” Palm said.

    Hospital staffing shortages are growing as healthcare workers who have been exposed to the coronavirus are quarantining for 14 days to avoid the possibility of infecting patients or coworkers. Palm and Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the Communicable Disease Bureau at DHS, said most health workers who have been told to quarantine are people who have been exposed off the job to other COVID-19 patients. 

    Andrea Palm 5/21/20
    Andrea Palm

    “With community spread, we are seeing many more exposures, potential contacts with a COVID-positive case, that is requiring those folks to stay out of the workforce,” Palm said. 

    Because of the precautions that hospitals and health care workers take — using personal protective equipment on the job including masks with filters keep out the virus — “there’s good reason to believe that health care worker infections acquired on the job are very rare,” Westergaard said. 

    “This is going to get worse before it gets better,” Palm told reporters, and the surge will require the state to prepare for still more hospitalizations. 

    The state is considering whether a greater need for surge capacity will require it to open another facility at the Alliant Center in Madison, and DHS has been exploring other potential sites elsewhere in the state, but those will take four to six weeks to set up if they are needed, she added.

    (This story has been updated with additional information on Wednesday Oct. 7 at 4:45 p.m.)

    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.