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


Wisconsin hospitals are under strain. In some parts of the state, they're at capacity. And with the coronavirus surging there, officials are taking an unusual measure to help free up some hospital beds. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, LaToya Dennis reports.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin are spiking again. In fact, more than 40% of known cases have been diagnosed in just the past month. Jeff Pothof is an emergency room doctor and chief quality officer for UW Health.

JEFF POTHOF: 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.

DENNIS: All right. So Wisconsin State Fair Grounds are usually known for the animals and the cheese curds and the cream puffs and everything else that goes along with the state fair. Right now, I'm standing outside of gate number four, next to a busy street in the rain. And there's a sign that says ambulance patient pickup. And that's because State Fair Grounds right now are being used as a field hospital for COVID-19 patients.

POTHOF: 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.

DENNIS: Dr. Pothof says in addition to the field hospital, 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, and the first arrived yesterday. The plan is to offer a medical facility where hospitals can send patients who still need care but are not in critical condition. Jeff Pothof says it's good to have a medical backstop, but the facility wouldn't be needed at all if people would just follow proper safety protocols.

POTHOF: 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.

DENNIS: The latest numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services show nearly 85% of hospital beds across the state are now occupied. The number is even higher for 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. The governor also loosened restrictions for traveling health care workers and nursing students close to graduation.

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

TOM VEESER: 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.

DENNIS: Here in Wisconsin, safety mandates instituted by Democratic Governor Tony Evers are routinely challenged in the courts by the Republican-controlled Legislature. That leads to confusion and conflict. State health officials say the spread of COVID will only slow when people here act more responsibly.

For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISOTOPE 217'S "LA JETEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

LaToya Dennis
LaToya Dennis joined WUWM in October 2006 as a reporter / producer. LaToya began her career in public radio as a part-time reporter for WKAR AM/FM in East Lansing, Michigan. She worked as general assignment reporter for WKAR for one and a half years while working toward a master's degree in Journalism from Michigan State University. While at WKAR, she covered General Motors plant closings, city and state government, and education among other critical subjects.