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COVID-19 Takes Toll On Veterans At Wisconsin Facilities

YouTube / Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs
Ten residents have died of COVID-19 at the mid-sized Union Grove facility.

Wednesday is Veterans Day. This year, part of the story is the COVID-19 toll at Wisconsin state veterans homes and federal VA facilities.

The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs says there have been 30 COVID-19-related deaths at the largest veterans home — King in central Wisconsin. Ten residents have died of COVID-19 at the mid-sized Union Grove facility. One died at a smaller state home in Chippewa Falls.

According to a federal website, 24 vets have died of COVID-19 while under VA care in Milwaukee. Twenty-one have passed away in Madison, and two in Tomah. 

Diane Lynch is homes division administrator for the state. She says there are many factors that play into the deaths at King, Union Grove and Chippewa Falls.  

"But the primary one is probably that staff come and go — off the properties, to their homes, to their families at night and they have community interactions or exposures," Lynch said.

Lynch says another factor is likely veterans leaving the state homes for urgent medical needs, "such as dialysis, or different cancer treatments, or things that cannot be done via telehealth. So, any time anyone leaves the property, there's a risk for exposure."

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Lynch emphasizes she's not blaming the staff. They’re becoming ill, too. At King, 39 employees are currently confirmed COVID-19 positive. Twenty-seven King residents, also known as members, are in that category. 

Only three staff are currently positive at Chippewa Falls. Two at Union Grove. But dozens more have been sick since the pandemic started.

When staff members test positive, they're removed from the work unit, putting more pressure on remaining employees, including nurses and certified nursing assistants. Federal VA staff have helped two of the state homes for short periods of time.

Lynch says since March, the veterans homes have been following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

"So, restricted visitors. Everyone is masked. Staff are screened every day when they come to work. Members are also screened every day for changes in their vitals that might indicate some COVID symptoms,’’ Lynch said.

Lynch also says there is twice-weekly testing for COVID-19, with both rapid result tests and a more reliable genetic test available. She says what's occurring in much of Wisconsin has caught up to the veterans facilities.

"Our homes were very successful for the first five-six months in keeping the virus out. But, I think as we've seen the spread happening in the state of Wisconsin, you know, our homes are not immune to that,” Lynch said. Lynch says that's no different from non-veteran nursing homes across the state and nation. 

The vast majority of state home residents are in higher-risk age categories for dying of COVID-19, age 75 and up. 

The veterans have fought in foreign wars. They've served in peacetime, both overseas and in the U.S. On a typical Veterans Day, there would be in-person ceremonies honoring them. But during COVID-19, both the state homes and the federal facilities are planning online and video events. 

Chuck Quirmbach joined WUWM in August 2018. He focuses his longform stories on health, innovation, science, technology, transportation, utilities and business.
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