COVID-19 has disrupted many parts of our lives, but it’s also affecting us in death. For Bubbler Talk, WUWM investigated the toll the pandemic has taken on one of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable populations: the elderly.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, as of June 11, 286 residents of long-term care facilities have died in the state because of COVID-19 complications. This is happening at a time when family members and friends are not allowed to visit their loved ones at the facilities. Because of the restrictions, many residents of these elder care homes have died without the companionship of their loved ones.
One of them is Sophie Laing. She’s described as an avid gardener and a stand-out mother by her son Mark Laing. Sophie was 93 when she passed away due to COVID-19 complications.
For Mark, the most difficult part isn't her death. “What I was mostly sad about was that I wasn't able to be there when she took her last breath," Mark says. "And that's what hurts dearly because my mom was always there for us.”
DHS has been tight-lipped with information about deaths at nursing homes. The department refused to release the names of facilities with coronavirus outbreaks until federal authorities announced they would publish them.
“Our decision to release the names of facilities with positive cases allows us to maintain confidentiality while providing peace of mind to families and guardians who cannot visit their loved ones,” DHS said in a statement.
Wisconsin is among a dwindling minority of states that do not publicly report the number of COVID-19 positive cases or deaths at individual long-term care locations. Amid mounting pressure, states like Massachusetts, Minnesota and Idaho are disclosing their data to the public.
Today, DHS is still declining to say how many residents got infected or died at each facility. They denied multiple records requests submitted by WUWM on the grounds of citizens' privacy.
In an effort to give the public a better understanding of COVID-19’s impact, WUWM filed for public records from Milwaukee County's medical examiner's office. With the data, WUWM created an interactive map of all the nursing homes with multiple COVID-19 deaths in Milwaukee County.
WUWM reached out to Hales Corners Care Center, where Sophie Laing lived, but did not receive a response. Ten other facilities contacted for this story also did not respond.
David Mills, CEO of North Shore Healthcare, a network of 54 nursing homes in Wisconsin, did speak with WUWM. Mills says, at his facilities, residents who test positive for COVID-19 have the right to go home.
“The residents absolutely have the right to be discharged and go home and be cared for at home by a loved one or home care or or some other service and that is absolutely within their right. We would support that," he says.
But unfortunately, Mills says, visits by family members are still not allowed.
For his part, Mark says his mother's nursing home was communicative and open with him about its COVID-19 outbreak, but he wishes he had been allowed to be with his mother. He says dying alone is the worst way anybody could die.
The passing of his mother is something that haunts him.
“I have dreams," Mark says. "A month ago, I had [one] she’s calling out my name, 'Mark. Where are you? I need you'. You know, that's it. That's a heavy burden."
Thank you to listener Keith Goggins who prompted this investigation into nursing home deaths by submitting a question to Bubbler Talk.
Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.