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Wisconsin Opens A Field Hospital At State Fair Grounds As Coronavirus Cases Spike

Chuck Quirmbach
The State Fair Expo Center is now being used as a field hospital for COVID-19 patients.

COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin are spiking again. In fact, more than 40% of known cases have been diagnosed in just the past month. Wisconsin’s hospitals are under a unique strain. In some parts of the state, they’re now at capacity.

With the coronavirus surging, officials are taking an unusual measure to help free up some hospital beds.

Jeff Pothof is an emergency room doctor and Chief Quality Officer for UW Health.

“We’re in a rough spot. This is the worst it’s been for Wisconsin throughout the whole pandemic. We’re at the worst of it right now,” he says.

The Wisconsin State Fair Grounds are usually known for animals, cheese curds, cream puffs, and everything else that goes along with the state fair. Now, there’s a sign that says ambulance patient pickup. That’s because the state fair grounds are being used as a field hospital for COVID-19 patients.

“It’s just unfortunate that in a country like the United States we have medical professionals thinking about how they will ration health care resources as this pandemic, especially here in Wisconsin, just continues to escalate,” Dr. Pothof says.

In addition to the field hospital, he says, rationing care is now a possibility. Inside the field hospital are row after row of makeshift hospital rooms. The facility can handle more than 500 patients. The first arrived Wednesday. The plan is to offer a medical facility where hospitals can send patients who still need care but are not in critical condition.

Pothof says it’s good to have the medical backstop but the facility wouldn’t be needed at all if people would just follow proper safety protocols.

“You can’t keep praise on our nurses and doctors and say how great they are while you’re out in public, maybe at a bar unmasked hanging out with other people,” he says.

The latest numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services show nearly 85% of hospital beds across the state are now full. The percentage is even higher in intensive care units.

For hospitals, the problem isn’t just the number of COVID-19 patients in addition to everyone else, it’s also that doctors and nurses are having to quarantine if they’re exposed to the virus. To help with staffing, hospitals are hiring from across the state and even out of state. They’re even rehiring medical workers who’ve retired. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers also loosened restrictions for traveling health care workers and nursing students close to graduation.

Tom Veeser is chief nursing officer at Holy Family Memorial — a small community hospital about 80 miles north of Milwaukee. It’s been at capacity for much of last six weeks and he doesn’t see an end in sight.

“We looked at the surge that happened in the south and southwest that was a six-week surge. I don’t know if we’ll follow the same pattern. We’re five weeks in, I think, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down,” he says.

Safety mandates instituted by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor are routinely challenged in the courts by the Republican-controlled Legislature. That leads to confusion and conflict. State health officials say the spread of the virus will only slow when people here act more responsibly.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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