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COVID-19 crisis spills over into Wisconsin's nursing, veterans homes
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COVID-19 crisis spills over into Wisconsin's nursing, veterans homes

King Veterans Home

Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.

Wisconsin’s COVID-19 crisis, which has so far killed more than 3,100 residents and infected more than 360,000, is rapidly spilling over into one of the state’s most vulnerable populations: patients in Wisconsin’s nursing and veterans homes.

Wisconsin nursing homes have seen a jump in COVID-19-related deaths, with nearly 300 reported to the federal government over a recent four-week period.

Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show that nursing homes in Wisconsin reported 294 residents had died of the virus between Oct. 12 and Nov. 8. The figure is more than 10 times higher than the 28 deaths that were reported in the previous month.

The number of cases in nursing homes has also surged, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In the latest four-week period, Wisconsin nursing homes reported 2,130 residents with new COVID-19 cases, up from 387 new cases in the preceding four-week period, the newspaper reported.

Wisconsin ranks sixth in the country for new cases per capita, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There were 1,605 new cases per 100,000 people in Wisconsin over the past two weeks; one in every 129 people tested positive in the past week.

While Wisconsin’s three state veterans homes were initially able to avoid the worst of the pandemic, that has rapidly changed in recent months. Since the pandemic began, the veterans homes at King, Union Grove and Chippewa Falls have reported a cumulative 53 deaths and 194 cases.

King Veterans Home has seen the brunt of the cases and deaths, with 158 residents testing positive for the virus so far, and 42 killed.

Currently, there are 24 active confirmed cases among residents at King; six among residents at Union Grove and one at Chippewa Falls.

Many staff members at the locations have also contracted the virus: 157 at King; 41 at Union Grove and 23 staff and one contractor at Chippewa Falls.

Veterans homes are following specific protocols for the virus. Members with COVID-19 are moved to a quarantine area, and a limited number of staff wearing personal protective equipment work with them. The homes screen and monitor members, staff and essential visitors for COVID-19 symptoms.

There are currently 398 residents at King; 133 at Union Grove and 70 at Chippewa Falls, although numbers have fluctuated significantly during the pandemic as admissions have slowed and are halted when cases of the virus are present. The resident population of King, for example, used to be closer to 500 residents. The average age of the residents is 81 at Chippewa Falls; 79 at King; and 80 at Union Grove.

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There are 700 staff members at King; 200 at Union Grove and 120 at Chippewa Falls.

The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs has implored people to stay home and take the virus seriously as many of the veterans home staff members live and work in communities with significant rates of COVID-19 community spread.

“With every death, our entire community mourns,” said DVA spokeswoman Carla Vigue. “Our staff have chosen health care and long-term care as careers because they love working with and helping people. And, they are getting sick, too. All of this is heartbreaking, but we all remain hopeful that if we join together we can bring an end to this terrible pandemic.”

The counties where the veterans homes are located — Waupaca, Racine and Chippewa — currently have very high rates of COVID-19.

“Each day that COVID-19 activity remains critically high in this state is a day that puts our residents and employees at our Wisconsin Veterans Homes at risk for contracting this terrible virus,” Vigue said. “What happens outside our doors affects us. We don’t operate in a bubble.”

Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities make up a small percentage of overall coronavirus cases in Wisconsin but represent at least 27% of fatalities, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. That percentage may be higher because health officials don’t know the housing status of more than 1,300 people who have died.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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