“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 in a news conference Wednesday.
The field hospital is a stark illustration of the extensive outbreak across Wisconsin, which has pushed hospitals to the brink, led to renewed limits on public gatherings, infected US Sen. Ron Johnson and forced the NFL’s Green Bay Packers to put an “indefinite hold” on having fans at historic Lambeau Field this season.
To combat the outbreak, Gov. Evers issued an emergency order limiting public gatherings to no more than 25% of a room or building’s capacity. The state had previously allowed bars and restaurants to operate at 50% capacity.
“We’re in a crisis right now and need to immediately change our behavior to save lives,” Evers said in a statement. “We are continuing to experience a surge in cases and many of our hospitals are overwhelmed, and I believe limiting indoor public gatherings will help slow the spread of this virus.”
The order, which went into effect Thursday morning, applies to any gatherings at locations open to the public, including stores, restaurants and other businesses with public entry, according to the release.
Still, the move is likely to be challenged in court by state Republicans, who have repeatedly sued to stop Evers’ moves to stem the spread of the virus. In May, the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s stay-at-home order after Republican legislators filed suit.
Hospitals stretched to the limit
The field hospital at the Wisconsin State Fair Park will coordinate with health care systems to admit patients who still need “hospital-level care” for Covid-19 but are not seriously ill with the virus, the governor said in the release.
“The goal of this facility is to transition COVID-19 patients who are less ill out of hospitals and reserve hospital beds for patients who are more ill and in need of hospital-level care,” the release said.
Wisconsin is divided into seven regions to manage health care emergencies. All are reporting high or very high activity for coronavirus-related hospitalizations as of Wednesday, according to the release.
The state has seen staffing shortages, too, as health care workers have caught the virus themselves. Last week, the governor signed a public health emergency order allowing out-of-state health care workers to practice in Wisconsin.
“I am saddened we needed to do it,” state Department of Health Services Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm said. “However, due to the surging hospitalizations and staffing shortages, it is a step that we must take.”
At Bellin Hospital in Green Bay last week, beds were set up in the hallway to handle the crush of patients.
“There’s a significant part of the population that doesn’t believe in the public health measures we all recommend,” said Dr. Paul Casey, medical director at the Bellin Health Emergency Department. “So the common theme we’re seeing right now is acquisition of the virus through close family or friend contact.”
And even as cases increase, the lingering effects of the virus remain for recovering patients. Leah Blomberg, a 36-year-old Wisconsin resident, told CNN she was diagnosed with Covid-19 in the spring and had to be put in a medically induced coma. She survived the infection, but her life is not back to normal.
“I get winded carrying my groceries 20 steps from the front step to the kitchen,” she said.
Explosion of cases since colleges reopened
The latest measures come as every coronavirus metric available points to the serious nature of the outbreak in Wisconsin.
The state’s seven-day positivity rate is 19.59%, the second-highest of any state in the US. Wisconsin’s seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases has sharply risen since early September with more than 2,000 new cases every day from September 26 to October 7, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Adjusted for population, Wisconsin’s seven-day average of new daily coronavirus cases is the third-worst of any state, behind only the Dakotas. Nearby states in the West and Midwest have similarly seen large numbers of cases per capita, including in Iowa, Nebraska and Montana.
Evers said Wisconsin’s surge in cases began in early September and was concentrated among 18-to-24-year-olds in college communities. But over the last few weeks, new cases have shifted to older populations, he said.
While the vast majority of people survive Covid-19, the risk of being hospitalized or dying is higher for older people or those with other health issues.
New cases in recent weeks have led to rises in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths. Evers said the number of people hospitalized for Covid-19 has nearly tripled since September 7, with 853 patients as of Tuesday.
The state set a record for the number of new Covid-19 hospitalizations on Wednesday with 141 patients, Palm said.
Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, 55 meet the threshold of “very high disease activity level,” an increase of 10 counties over last week, Palm said. The rest of the counties are at a high disease activity level.
“Wisconsin as a whole is also at a very high disease activity level,” she added.