So far, Rock County has not seen a catastrophic COVID-19 infection outbreak—at least not one that overwhelmed hospitals and required emergency pop-up medical tents to house overflow patients.
That might make the city of Janesville’s 2020 purchase of two hospital surge shelter sets a $600,000 gamble that never paid off.
Yet as public health officials report that Rock County communities continue to sink deeper into a growing flood of new COVID-19 infections, one city official said he doesn’t regret his support last year for buying two pricey tent systems to alleviate possible emergency room surges the pandemic could have brought to Mercyhealth and St. Mary’s hospitals in Janesville.
Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes told The Gazette that the city intends to continue to own and keep two five-cell tent sets that can be used for surges in medical cases or other purposes. Rhodes recommended buying the tents last year. He said the intent was to give both Janesville hospitals space for an additional 50 beds if a spike in COVID-19 cases overwhelmed one or both the hospital’s emergency and intensive-care units and could one day be used for such a purpose.
“We don’t have a huge, built-in surge capacity here. Not a lot of hospitals anywhere have a huge surge capacity in the number of 50 beds. It’s very much more limited than that,” Rhodes said.
His comments come as Rock County this week edged into the highest category state and federal health authorities use to characterize the probable COVID-19 infection rate. State Department of Health Services data shows the county has seen a significant uptick in the past few weeks in likely cases of COVID-19, a trend officials say is likely tied to a rise in the delta variant.
The state data shows Rock County has seen more than a doubling of COVID-19 cases per week since mid-July, and last week, the county recommended people return to wearing masks inside public spaces.
Nearly 58% of eligible residents in the county are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The county has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of people now hospitalized with COVID-19 infection significant, with the number rising from nine to 19 over the past few weeks.
This week marks the highest number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 since May, and the state has upgraded Rock County’s status to “high” and growing in both overall cases and COVID-19-like symptoms reported to doctors.
The city since buying the tents last year has constructed and field-tested the tents, but they’ve been on standby since the city deployed them a handful of times last year to provide base operations for testing officials and the U.S. Army National Guard at mobile COVID-19 testing sites in Rock County.
Rhodes said the tents are being stored in canvas and metal containers at a “city location” and are ready for use if necessary.
Rhodes said the two tent sets—each a five-cell, walled system designed with enough space to socially distance or isolate COVID-19 patients and medical staff—could serve in myriad other types of local emergency responses.
Earlier this week, a resident at a local listening session U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil held here complained in a public comment about the city buying $600,000 in hospital surge tents during the COVID-19 lockdown last year that it ultimately has not used.
Rhodes, who plans to leave the Janesville Fire Department later this month to take a new job in his home state of Missouri, has a background in local emergency management. He said he believes the city made the right choice to buy surge shelters, even if there hasn’t been a surge in people hospitalized with COVID-19 that would necessitate the shelters’ use at local hospitals.
“If somebody says we never needed the tents, they’re wrong. We did need them, because it (COVID-19) was coming. And guess what? We’re still in the middle of this (pandemic),” Rhodes said. “We still need to have the tents, we need to have them on the ready. And now, we’re always going to have them.”
Rhodes said the city would have no reason to return the equipment because it has already been paid for through a federal reimbursement for COVID-19 preparedness. Retaining the equipment gives the city flexibility to run various emergency operations—pandemic related or non-pandemic related, Rhodes said.
Rhodes offered other hypothetical uses for such tent equipment, including the threat of an occasional Wisconsin ice storm that can temporarily knock out local power—including to facilities with vulnerable populations such as nursing homes.
“The tent packages include air conditioning, or we can (use the packages to) heat the wing of the nursing home or provide them with power. Then those people don’t have to evacuate,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said in a widespread regional disaster or during a statewide disease outbreak, cities might not be able to purely rely on state or federal equipment such as surge tents to show up where or when they’re needed.