Nearly 300 Wisconsin nursing home residents died from COVID-19 in four weeks, 10 times more than the month before

Nearly 300 nursing home residents in Wisconsin died from COVID-19 in the most recent month reported to the federal government — more than 10 times the previous month.

As the coronavirus continues to ravage the state, nursing homes in Wisconsin reported that 294 residents had died of the disease caused by the coronavirus between Oct. 12 and Nov. 8, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In the previous month, the deaths of 28 residents were reported.

The number of nursing home residents who have reportedly caught the virus has also shot up. In the latest four-week period, Wisconsin nursing homes reported 2,130 residents with newly confirmed cases, according to the CMS data.

That’s up from about 387 new cases in the four-week period from Sept. 14 to Oct. 11.

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The month before that, there were 140.

The spike comes at a time when daily coronavirus cases continue to hit record high after record high in the state. Over the seven-day period ending last Wednesday, Wisconsin averaged 6,564 new cases per day, a new high.

That seven-day average is nine times what it was Sept. 1.

The nursing homes with some of the worst outbreaks since September were in Brown, Marinette, Outagamie, Waupaca and other northeastern counties that experienced a wave of coronavirus cases beginning that month. But there have also been substantial outbreaks at homes in Milwaukee, Dodge and Racine counties.

“Nowhere in Wisconsin exists in a bubble,” state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, said in a Facebook post about outbreaks in long-term care facilities in northeast Wisconsin. “This is a tragic reminder that anyone’s actions may contribute to more spread, more sickness and potentially more deaths.”

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

At least 592 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19 in Wisconsin since the start of the pandemic, according to the CMS data.

But that in itself is an undercount because some nursing homes didn’t report deaths that occurred in April to the federal government. That tally also doesn’t include people who died in other long-term care facilities, such as assisted living.

Ron Adams has lived in an Oshkosh nursing home since February, after he had a stroke that disabled him. His wife, Dawn Banerdt-Adams, is terrified an outbreak at the facility will infect her husband, who has several underlying health conditions that make him more susceptible to COVID-19.

“We’re coming into the holidays and this virus is just completely out of control,” she said. “I try not to think about what would happen to Ron if he got COVID. … It’s gut-wrenching to dwell on it.”

An at-risk population

Nursing home residents are among the most at-risk for COVID because they live with lots of other people in confined housing, and because of their age and underlying health conditions.

“Just as this spring we saw a ton of nursing home outbreaks and lots of illness, hospitalization and deaths from our nursing home population, we know that as we enter the winter months, nursing homes are very high on my list of facilities,” Darren Rausch, director of the Greenfield Health Department, said in a recent call with reporters. “We need to work with them on a very regular basis to make sure they’re doing everything they can, to make sure everybody’s wearing the PPE, they’re following all the rules.” 

A majority of the residents at St. Paul Elder Services, a nursing home in Kaukauna, caught the virus after staff members who were not yet showing symptoms later tested positive for COVID-19 and the virus spread, said president and CEO Sondra Norder.

As of Nov. 8, 10 residents had died and 74 tested positive for COVID-19, according to CMS data. 

“While our protocols for testing and surveillance and screening are pretty effective in trying to identify people who may be carrying this virus before they walk through our door, just the nature of this virus makes it impossible to prevent all infected individuals from coming through our doors,” Norder said. “There is really nothing more we could have done to prevent this.”

She blamed the outbreaks in nursing homes on “unchecked, out-of-control” spread of COVID-19 in the community, pointing to studies linking the two, and said Wisconsin’s leadership had failed to take measures to control the spread.

Housekeeper Debbie Raym, left, and CNA Nora Gaffney, right, self-test for COVID-19 on June 22 at St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna. Employees are tested weekly at the senior care facility.

“We are certainly not surrendering to this fight, but we are losing this battle,” Norder said. “We are losing the battle against trying to separate ourselves from the surging community transmission happening around us.” 

Woodside Lutheran Home in Green Bay also had a large, weeks-long outbreak after multiple staff members tested positive in September, around the time cases were spiking in Brown County. Ultimately, eight residents died from COVID-19 and 68 became infected, as of Nov. 8, according to the CMS data.

Administrator Meghan Mehlberg said they’ve had all the proper protocols in place, but once the virus was in the facility, it was difficult to contain.

“At that point, it’s difficult to gather, is it residents giving it to staff? Is it vice versa?” she said. “Every week it seemed like we trickled more positives.”

‘I get depressed. I get angry.’

The last eight months have been an “emotional roller coaster,” said Banerdt-Adams, the wife of the Oshkosh nursing home resident.

Over the summer, a resident in the nursing home tested positive for the virus. Since then, Banerdt-Adams has gotten regular emails from the nursing home with news about the outbreak, or with her husband’s test results.

Federal regulators require nursing homes with a positive case to test all residents and staff weekly or twice weekly until there are no new COVID-19 cases for a two-week period.

Banerdt-Adams said she braces herself before opening each email.

Ron Adams, left, lives in a nursing home in Oshkosh. His wife, Dawn Banerdt-Adams, right, worries about an outbreak spreading in his facility as coronavirus cases surge in the community-at-large.

“There are days I think this is never going to end,” she said of the pandemic. “I get depressed. I get angry.”

She is allowed into the nursing home once a week for an hourlong visit with her husband. Sometimes she is tempted to cross the six feet between her and her husband and give him a hug, but she stops herself.

“If I ever gave him COVID, I would rather die myself,” she said.

During their visits, she makes it a rule not to talk about the virus, which she described as a “black cloud hovering over everything.”

“For that one hour, that black cloud has to go away,” she said.

Daphne Chen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.