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Likely Months Before Wisconsin Nursing Homes Allow In-Person Visitors

Susan Bence
With COVID-19 outbreaks in Wisconsin nursing homes, a state health official says it could be months until nursing homes allow in-person visitors.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is tracking COVID-19 outbreaks at 187 facilities, which includes factories and other places of work. About half are in long-term care facilities, many of them nursing homes. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, a state health official says it could be months until nursing homes allow in-person visitors. 

Ryan Westergaard is the chief medical officer of the Wisconsin Bureau of Communicable Diseases. He says efforts to protect nursing home residents are fraught with challenges. For example, imagine the potential spread of the coronavirus by just one visitor who is symptom-free. At a news briefing Monday, Westergaard says that’s a risk the state can’t take.

"Until we get to the point of having other ways to protect residents, I think limitation and restrictions on visitation is probably going to be there," Westergaard says.

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He's hopeful researchers will come up with a vaccine or successful treatments of COVID-19 within the next 12 months. Until then, he says nursing home residents likely won’t be able to see family or friends in person.

"It is an unfortunate circumstance and we’re all trying to support each other and get people’s need for social support and family connections met while really trying to do infection control in the best way that we know,” Westergaard says.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers announced plans Monday to make Wisconsin one of the top states in per-capita testing for the coronavirus. One strategy is to test all nursing home residents and staff members.

"The state will provide free testing and diagnostics to all 373 nursing homes. To get this done we anticipate testing over 10,000 residents and staff during the month of May. Teams of public and private sector partners will begin calling nursing home facilities today to coordinate supplies, logistics, and test results,” Evers says.

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The Democratic governor says testing is one of the keys to reopening nonessential businesses and getting life back to normal in Wisconsin. One of the criteria is a steady decrease in positive coronavirus test results.

But state GOP leaders are challenging Evers’ safer-at-home order in court. They’re eager for the economy to reopen, including in parts of Wisconsin where few coronavirus cases have been reported.

The state Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday.

Westergaard cautions against reducing social distancing or allowing groups of people to gather, including at nonessential businesses. He compares the coronavirus to a smoldering wildfire.

"It flares up here and it flares up there, and what we have to be prepared to prevent is when more people come together and not doing physical distancing, that it doesn’t flare up in a very large way," Westergaard says.

Editor's note: A portion of the audio is from WisconsinEye.

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


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