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Amid a surge in coronavirus cases that has put a strain on health care facilities across Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday that the state will open a 530-bed field hospital for the first time since the pandemic began.
"We obviously hoped this day wouldn't come, but unfortunately Wisconsin is in a much different and more dire place today and our health care systems are being overwhelmed," Evers said during a news briefing.
Over the past month, the state's COVID-19 hospitalizations have nearly tripled — from just 289 Sept. 7 to 853 as of Tuesday — officials said. This week alone, statewide hospitalizations have increased 26% compared to last week and the number of patients in intensive care units has increased 27% since last week. In the Fox Valley, northeast, and southeast regions of the state, hospitals are operating at or above 90% of their ICU capacity, state Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm said.
The facility at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis outside Milwaukee will be used to treat COVID-19 patients who have been hospitalized but are on their road to recovery. Palm said of the 530 patient spaces, nearly 300 are equipped with inline oxygen, but that the facility, due to open next week, is "designed for a lower level of care" and is meant to take pressure off hospitals so they can focus on patients with more severe illness.
Overall, Wisconsin has reported nearly 139,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,415 deaths as of Wednesday, according to DHS data. The Badger state has emerged as a new hot spot for the virus in recent weeks as cases skyrocketed during September. Wisconsin, which has a population of about 5.8 million, currently ranks third behind the Dakotas for the most cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days, according to the New York Times. On Oct. 3, the state reported 2,892 new COVID-19 cases — the second record single-day count in as many days (the state reported 2,887 cases on Oct. 1).
The rapid rise in cases and hospitalizations have also stretched the state's healthcare workforce and contact tracing efforts, Palm said, noting that every region has hospitals reporting "current or imminent" staffing shortages due to workers getting sick or having to quarantine because of what she described as "intense community spread."
"To be clear, this is going to get worse before it gets better," Palm said, adding that the need for the alternative care facility is a direct result of the surge in cases and that hospitalizations will continue to rise. "We are one of only a few states in the country to need to open an alternative care facility. This is not a list we ever wanted to be on."
She and Evers urged individuals to stay home as much as possible, wear face coverings, practice social distancing, and to get tested and quarantine if they experience any symptoms.
"We're in crisis in Wisconsin," Palm said. "A crisis calls for drastic measures and I'm calling on every single one of us to do all that we can to protect each other."
Wednesday's announcement comes as officials enact new measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. On Tuesday, Palm issued an emergency order limiting indoor public gatherings in restaurants, bars, and other businesses to no more than 25% of a room or building’s total occupancy beginning Thursday through Nov. 6. The order does not apply to child care settings, schools, health care facilities, polling locations, or places of worship.
Evers also announced more than $100 million in grants for small businesses and other industries, citing a lack of federal support. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he was ending negotiations on a new coronavirus relief bill until after the election.
“Small businesses, including the tourism and lodging industries, are the backbone of our Wisconsin communities,” Evers said. “Our communities are in desperate need of additional federal support, but we can’t wait a moment longer to do what we can here in Wisconsin.”
Statewide efforts to keep the virus at bay have been hamstrung by a Republican-controlled legislature, which has repeatedly challenged efforts by Evers, a Democrat, to slow the spread of the disease.
In May, the state's Supreme Court struck down Evers' statewide stay at home order after Republican lawmakers sued, lifting all restrictions on businesses and gatherings. A ruling is expected soon on a similar challenge to a statewide mask mandate Evers issued in August, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The new order on public gatherings is expected to be challenged in court as well.
Regardless of whether that order, which does not apply to private gatherings in people's homes, will stand, Evers reiterated on Wednesday that any efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus depend on individuals heeding public health guidance and acting responsibly.
"People's lives are at stake here, the ability for healthcare workers to do their work is at stake here, and if we just blatantly ignore that issue we’ll still be sitting here counting the numbers and it will get worse and worse," Evers said. "We need people to respond in the best way possible."