The first COVID-19 patient was admitted to the recently constructed State Fair Park alternate care facility Oct. 21 as COVID-19 cases continue to spike across Wisconsin.

According to a press release from the Office of the Governor, Gov. Tony Evers officially ordered the State Fair Park’s alternate care facility to accept COVID-19 patients beginning Oct. 7. It opened Oct. 14. The facility has 530 patient spaces that can be expanded to 754 if needed, with 296 of them containing in-line oxygen care.

The facility will accept patients from any Wisconsin hospital that reaches 80% of its Phase II capacity, according to Emergency Order 32. These patients will be low-risk COVID-19 patients or those “meeting the criteria of COVID-19 if untested,” to free up space in over-stressed hospital systems, according to the order.

Multiple Wisconsin hospital systems reported high rates of patient occupancy in early October, forcing Evers to create extra space for overflow.

Nov. 7 there were 7,494 new cases and a seven-day average of 5,671 cases per day as Wisconsin moved to No. 4 on the list of states with the most cases per 100,000 people, behind only North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, according to The New York Times.

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The number of beds and staff in the facility will be increased if more patients are admitted.

State Fair Park alternate care facility CEO Deb Standridge said staffing will meet hospital standards but fluctuate based on patient demand.

“We have over 50 staff here, we’re going to open with 50 beds and that’s what we opened with today,” Standridge said in an Oct. 14 COVID-19 media briefing. “Our staff includes physicians, licensed physicians, licensed registered nurses, medical assistants, respiratory therapists, clerks, social workers, pharmacists, etcetera.”

The facility has a different role than typical hospitals, though, as it is not designed to handle high-risk or trauma patients. Seven patients were admitted to the care facility as of Nov. 8.

Policy Initiatives Advisor for the Office of the Secretary at the Wisconsin Department of Administration Molly Dillman Vidal stated the facility operates differently than a hospital and is designed to handle low-risk patients.

“The alternate care facility is part of the continuum of healthcare being provided to COVID-19-positive Wisconsinites. It is not a hospital,” Vidal said. “The main purpose is to support COVID-19 patients that are not severely ill but still require continued medical support after hospitalization or an admission to a hospital’s emergency department.”

The new facility will allow health care workers to differentiate between patient risk levels, as permanent hospitals will be focused on critical cases like cardiovascular disease or COVID-19 patients requiring a ventilator. This space will also be necessary if the possible “twindemic” of viral COVID-19 and flu winter seasons occur in the next few months.

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Associate Director for Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin James Conway said those admitted to the facility might not have significant symptoms, but rather use the controlled environment for quarantine prior to leaving the hospital.

“It’s primarily for COVID-19 patients who do not require particularly complicated care, or who are waiting out their contagious period before returning to their previous living situation,” Conway said.

Medical experts linked a spike in cases to problems with following standard health precautions, like masking and social distancing, across the state, according to NPR. Republican lawmakers recently filed a lawsuit, which was blocked by a state judge, against Evers’ mask mandate.

In an NPR podcast, UW Health Chief Quality Officer Jeffrey Pothof said Wisconsin is seeing its worst case counts since the start of the pandemic. Pothof attributed this scenario to irresponsible behavior.

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

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According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, another problem within hospitals is staff exhaustion, as nurses are taking more shifts to fill in the gaps of coworkers who might be quarantining after contracting COVID-19.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article estimates Wisconsin could run out of ICU beds and the nurses that staff them in two to six weeks if cases continue to rise. Wisconsin Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said in the Oct. 14 media briefing that additional care facilities like the one at State Fair Park might be necessary.

“We have called upon the Army Corps of Engineers to come back and review those plans in preparation for the possibility that we may need to stand up a second or third alternate care facility, but we also want to maximize the use of the facility we have here in Milwaukee,” Van Dijk said.

Those interested in volunteering or working at the facility can register here by selecting “Milwaukee Alternate Care Site” under the “Statewide COVID-19 Responders” drop-down.