The state of Wisconsin says the number of active COVID-19 investigations at nursing homes continues to increase. The Department of Health Services (DHS) website indicates 58 active public health probes, up from 38 when the state first released its list two weeks ago.
There are 15 active probes at skilled care facilities in Milwaukee County. Total investigations (active and closed) at nursing homes statewide has gone from 46 to 74. An investigation gets underway when at least one home resident or staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
The state says there's also been an increase in the number of deaths at long-term care facilities — up about 50 in the last two weeks, to roughly 225.
Many of Wisconsin's long-term care facilities belong to the Wisconsin Health Care Association and the Wisconsin Center for Assisted Living, where John Vander Meer is president and CEO. He says COVID-19 is a problem everywhere that individuals congregate.
"But, it is a particular challenge for facilities that provide care and services to the frail older adults,” Vander Meer said.
Vander Meer says nursing homes and assisted care sites are being proactive on things like infection control, checking the health of workers and many other steps.
Still, there have been unexplained problems. Kenosha County health officials announced this week that six residents of The Bay at Sheridan Health and Rehabilitation Center in Kenosha have died in recent weeks. A center official declined an interview with WUWM, but said in a county press release that they're "working to take all appropriate infection control practices” and to get lab results “in a timely manner to help isolate all future COVID-19 residents right away.”
Quick action by a Milwaukee County nursing home is partly what a local woman credits for helping her 92-year-old mother apparently recover from COVID-19. Becky Steimle says soon after her mom tested positive in early May, the home, which WUWM isn't naming to protect the resident's identity, moved Steimle's mother to their COVID unit.
"It's an area that has doors that close, so that, you know, things could be contained,” Steimle said.
Steimle says it's helped that her mother trusts the nursing home staff and that prior to COVID-19, Steimle says her mom has been in pretty good health.
"Beyond that, I would say you're lucky if [COVID-19] doesn't get you. Maybe there's some good genes, I hope. But I think it was the positive, super-positive attitude that surrounded her,” Steimle said.
DHS says it would like to see more good news from nursing homes, and reach Gov. Tony Evers' goal of getting all Wisconsin nursing home residents and staff tested for COVID-19. DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said this week that more than two-thirds of the roughly 370 skilled nursing facilities in Wisconsin have requested testing supplies from the state.
"Many of them are conducting testing in their own facilities. Some of them need assistance from the Wisconsin National Guard, and the National Guard has been responding and assisting with testing. So, we're well on our way to achieving that goal,” Willems Van Dijk said.
The state has also promised to steer $100 million in federal money to skilled care sites, home care and community-based providers. Vander Meer, of the Wisconsin Health Care Association, says the governor's plan is an important step in the right direction. But Vander Meer says it's not enough, contending many Wisconsin nursing homes are not in great financial condition, partly due to higher employee expenses.
"Recruitment, overtime, pay increases that are necessary to keep employees on. Some employers are calling it 'hero pay,' " Vander Meer said.
Vander Meer says his group would support additional efforts by Congress to help the care facilities.
Steimle, the daughter of the recovered COVID-19 patient, says she'd like overall to see more public concern about senior citizens dying from the coronavirus and a push for more preventive measures.
"I think it's something that, we need and want to appreciate about our elders in general, that, as we lose them, we lose those stories, we lose those memories," she said.
State figures show 70% of the roughly 550 COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin are of people age 70 and older.
Support for Innovation reporting is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman.
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