These cleaning supplies are in frequent use at Audrey Nelson’s Reality Unlimited group homes in Eau Claire. Nelson and other group home operators in Wisconsin are taking extra measures to prevent COVID-19 among their clients and staff. The number of cases of the virus at group homes has doubled in recent days. (Photo provided)
These cleaning supplies are in frequent use at Audrey Nelson’s Reality Unlimited group homes in Eau Claire. Nelson and other group home operators in Wisconsin are taking extra measures to prevent COVID-19 among their clients and staff. The number of cases of the virus at group homes has doubled in recent days. (Photo provided)

Number of positive cases goes from 95 to 189

The number of COVID-19 cases detected at Wisconsin group homes doubled in just five days, a sign of difficulties preventing the spread of the virus in close living situations, state health officials and operators of those facilities said. 

From Wednesday to Monday, the number of confirmed cases at group homes statewide jumped from 95 to 189, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Residents of adult group homes are cognitively delayed or have physical and mental health concerns.

The increase is due to the contagious nature of the virus and the ability to conduct more testing at group home sites as the state’s testing capacity continues to increase, said Andrea Palm, secretary of the state Department of Health Services.

Maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others is ideal to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The virus can spread quickly in settings such as group homes, nursing homes and assisted living sites where people live close together, she said.

“I expect (the higher number) is related to surge testing we have done,” Palm said of efforts to respond to outbreaks of the virus at group homes in recent days. 

State and county health officials typically have not released specific information about spikes in COVID-19 cases. But sources familiar with the situation said the rise in cases statewide includes a recent COVID-19 outbreak at a Thorp group home in Clark County.

The DHS website shows the Clark County cases of the virus are concentrated in the Thorp area. A town of roughly 1,600 people, Thorp is home to three of the county’s 21 group homes.

Since April 14, the number of cases in Clark County has gone from eight to 19. Two county residents have died of COVID-19, including one on Sunday. Officials did not say whether either of those cases were related to cases at a nursing home. 

Clark County public health officials confirmed the increase, but they declined to answer questions about whether those new cases occurred at a Thorp group home.     

“We are not releasing specific details about these cases because of a concern for privacy,” said John ross, Clark County emergency management director.

Group home owners elsewhere in the state said they are doing all they can to keep their clients from contracting or spreading COVID-19.

They said they have enacted multiple measures to protect residents at their businesses from contracting or spreading COVID-19, including restricting visitors from outside those sites. Some of those operators said staff wear gloves and masks, and residents who exhibit signs of illness don masks too. 

Staff also have trained group home clients about proper hand washing, group home operators said, and they frequently stress the importance of that activity. 

“It is a big concern,” said Audrey Nelson, who operates two group homes in Eau Claire. “If that virus gets into my homes or other group homes, it could spread really fast. So we have to do everything we can to keep that from happening.”

Depending on the clientele of group homes, convincing residents of the necessity to maintain 6-feet of social distancing also can be challenging, Nelson said.

She owns Reality Unlimited, two group homes where seven people with brain injuries receive services.

Some clients have become frustrated with limitations imposed upon them, in part because they don’t understand the necessity for such rules, Nelson said.

“Some of the residents get it, but some of them don’t,” said Mary Jo LaBair, owner of Garlick’s CRBF, which operates seven group home sites in Mondovi that provide services to 19 residents with cognitive, physical and mental health issues.

Garlick’s staff members wear masks to prevent the spread of the virus, LaBair said. Visitors are not allowed at her group homes and resident gatherings have been halted. 

“We stopped all of that right away,” LaBair said. “We know how dangerous this virus can be.”