Health departments opening voluntary COVID-19 isolation centers

Published: Mar. 31, 2020 at 5:04 PM CDT
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Updated to clarify that Oshkosh has not opened an isolation center but is making preparations if one is needed.

Action 2 News has learned that local health departments are working with emergency workers and health officials in Northeast Wisconsin to set up voluntary isolation centers in Green Bay and Oshkosh in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Health officials say this is the next biggest move in trying to ease the strain on hospitals and make sure there are enough beds for people who need them while at the same time trying to prevent the spread of the virus.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the state reports 1,351 cases of COVID-19 dating back to the state's first case in February, with 16 deaths. More than 17,000 people with symptoms tested negative for the disease. [While individual counties may report different numbers, we are using the state report which freezes data every day at 12:30 p.m. from lab-confirmed cases.]

Action 2 News took part in a conference call Tuesday with the Wisconsin Health Services Deputy Secretary regarding new isolation centers that will open Wednesday in Madison and Milwaukee, but they're also working with local officials to set them up here.

"My understanding is that Green Bay is providing an isolation facility and housing a few people," Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said. "We have also been in conversation with officials in Oshkosh, and they wanted to see how things went with these first two facilities and maybe using that guidance to look at a facility there."

The Brown County Health Department says the isolation center here opened last week and can house about 30 people. Two people are there currently. The health department is not disclosing its location.

The Madison facility at Lowell Center Inn can house 137 people. The Milwaukee facility at a Super 8 hotel can house 110 but doesn't have any patients yet, Van Dijk said.

The City of Oshkosh says it is working with partners to have an isolation center ready if one becomes needed.

Think of them as a hotel stay. Doctors or public health officials can refer a person who has symptoms of or tested positive for COVID-19 but does not need to be hospitalized to one of these isolation centers. It's voluntary, and the patient can self-quarantine there for 14 days or 72 hours after their symptoms are gone.

They will not be provided with medical care, but someone will phone their room every 4 hours during the day.

Officials say National Guard members may help staff the sites but each facility makes its own arrangements. Securing the facilities is not part of the Guard's mission, Van Dijk said. Security will be contracted privately.

Health officials say there could be a wide range of people using the facility, such as someone who's homeless or someone who lives in a group setting and doesn't want to infect the others living there.

"It is up to the individual, or them to elect to come into these facilities, so we do not have a way to force them in," Van Dijk said. "It is absolutely voluntary.

Health officials say hospitals have not told the state they're nearing capacity, but the state is doing this as a way to be prepared.

The state Emergency Operations Center will work with other local communities interested in setting up voluntary isolation centers.

"Our goal in this pandemic is to keep the number of people who need a hospital bed lower than the number of hospital beds available. These isolation sites are a critical component to that," Van Dijk said.

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