GREEN BAY - A team of Navy medical personnel started work at Bellin Hospital Thursday, a day earlier than expected but not a moment too soon as a health care crisis worsens, officials say.
The 23-member team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists will work in a variety of units to provide relief for a Green Bay hospital strained by the pandemic.
Although the Navy members deployed to Bellin because of COVID-19, they will not work exclusively with coronavirus patients.
"As of today, they are trading in their Navy green for Bellin blue scrubs," Chris Woleske, president and CEO of Bellin Health, said Thursday during a news conference at the hospital.
An earlier announcement said the military personnel were scheduled to start Friday. The team actually arrived Tuesday for two days of orientation and training and began working in their respective units Thursday.
The Navy health care workers are expected to remain at the hospital for 30 days. The team includes five critical care nurses, five emergency trauma nurses, four medical surgical nurses, two respiratory therapists, a pulmonologist, three internal medicine providers and additional leadership staff.
The hospital can request additional time for the military assistance, beyond the initial 30 days, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Any additional nurse or respiratory therapist that we get allows us to to treat more individuals," said Laura Hieb, Bellin Health chief nursing officer and senior vice president.
Woleske said the additional staff will allow Bellin to use an area of the hospital that is equipped to care for patients but has not been usable because of staff shortages. Bellin will be able to accept patients from smaller, regional hospitals rather than transfer them, in some cases, out of state, she said.
The Navy staff members will receive military pay and are being housed in Green Bay-area hotels. However, they have had difficulty finding hotels because of increased tourism during the Packers season, said Chief Petty Officer Raymond Brandt, the team's senior enlisted advisor.
Thursday’s start date for the Navy personnel came a day after Wisconsin hit the grim milestone of 10,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health Services.
Their arrival also comes as Brown County averaged 232 new cases a day over the past seven days, according to DHS. That's the highest average number of new cases since the surge in November 2020, before vaccines were available. On Thursday, DHS reported 450 newly confirmed cases in the county.
Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, more than 50,200 Brown County residents have contracted the highly contagious virus and 305 Brown County residents have died from COVID-19, according to state data.
Data collected by the Wisconsin Hospital Association shows the seven-county region of northeast Wisconsin has 10 hospitals, including Bellin. As of Thursday, all but five of the 207 ICU beds in those hospitals were full, and all but six of the hospitals' 462 medical-surgical floor beds were full, according to WHA.
The Green Bay hospital is among the first in the U.S. to receive federal assistance, along with Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. Bellin was selected because of its central location and its ability to expand capacity to serve additional communities. This ability was a condition for receiving the deployment from the FEMA.
This help comes less than a month after Gov. Tony Evers requested 100 FEMA workers for five hospitals in need of relief because of the pandemic. The initial request stated a need for five medical reserve teams of 20 workers each.
According to the Wisconsin Hospital Association, 164 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in northeast Wisconsin's 10 hospitals as of Thursday. Of the 164 patients, 39 were in the ICU while only five of the region's 207 ICU beds remained available.
Over the past two weeks, hospitals in northeast Wisconsin are experiencing “no significant change” in the number of COVID-19 patients that need to be hospitalized, but the number of COVID-19 patients needing to be cared for in an ICU increased by 25%, according to DHS. That means already hospitalized patients are getting sicker, requiring they be transferred from a medical floor into the ICU.
Bellin is expecting an increase in coronavirus cases as a result of gatherings to celebrate the new year. Woleske said hospital systems could be overwhelmed if cases continue to increase, which could lead to the delay of immediate for some patients.
She asked the community take COVID-19 precautions when celebrating by keeping gatherings small, wearing masks indoors, getting vaccinated, getting tested before gathering and practicing social distancing.
"Please, as New Year's Eve approaches, make a small sacrifice, and think twice about how you celebrate," Woleske said.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Navy begins Green Bay Bellin hospital deployment amid COVID crisis