Jane Tannis, a resident at Oakwood Health Services in Altoona, celebrates her 76th birthday with Paul Chmelik, who is part of her care team. Both Tannis and Chmelik tested positive for COVID-19 this week. (Photo courtesy of Keri Teigen)
Jane Tannis, a resident at Oakwood Health Services in Altoona, celebrates her 76th birthday with Paul Chmelik, who is part of her care team. Both Tannis and Chmelik tested positive for COVID-19 this week. (Photo courtesy of Keri Teigen)

COVID-19 cases on the rise in long-term care facilities, with 430 active investigations underway. 

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Wisconsin in March, staff at Oakwood Health Services nursing home in Altoona had kept at bay the contagious virus so dangerous to the facility’s elderly residents. 

But as has been the case in many nursing homes across the state, the virus made its way to the Eau Claire County site, too. On Tuesday, Keri Teigen learned that her 76-year-old mother Jane Tannis tested positive for COVID-19. The news left her feeling terrified and helpless.

“This is what I worried about all along as I watched coronavirus cases keep rising,” said Teigen, a resident of Eau Claire, on Thursday. “It’s my worst fear realized.”

Tannis is far from alone among long-term care residents whose lives are at risk because of the spread of COVID-19, according to public health experts and statistics released Wednesday by the state Department of Health Services. More residents and staff at Wisconsin’s long-term care locations are contracting the virus, and deaths at those sites are becoming increasingly common amid a continued coronavirus spike in the state

The number of investigations related to COVID-19 at sites housing elderly people has grown significantly in recent weeks. According to DHS figures, 610 active investigations at long-term care facilities are related to COVID-19, a list that includes nursing homes, memory care units, and other settings in which elderly people live and receive care. 

Two weeks ago active investigations at those sites totaled 430. Since tracking of those sites began with the onset of the coronavirus in Wisconsin in March, there have been 1,200 total investigations at those locations.

The more-frequent outbreaks of the coronavirus are leaving state and local health officials struggling to contain the virus and prevent more deaths to a fragile population. During a news conference Tuesday, DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm referenced the fast-climbing numbers of COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities. 

The fast spread of the virus in those settings is boosting the state’s coronavirus-related death total, she said. On Thursday, 51 new deaths were reported, two days after a one-day record 64 of them.  

State and local health officials are working closely with nursing homes to conduct investigations and prevent virus spread, but doing so is especially challenging, she said. 

“Our best strategy is to keep the infection out of nursing homes on the front end,” Palm said.

Teigen agrees with that sentiment, especially given the vulnerable status of people like her mother, who has lived at Oakwood Health Services for the past seven years. Teigen said she is frustrated that too many people in government and the general public haven’t taken the pandemic more seriously, making it easier for an infected person to unknowingly transmit the virus to nursing homes and other locations. 

“People need to stop gathering. They need to wear masks,” Teigen said. “By not doing that, by not practicing social distancing, they’re making my mom and people like her expendable.”

Cases of the virus are especially dangerous at long-term care sites, not only because of the close confines of residents and staff, but because populations at those locations are elderly, often have underlying health conditions, and are at an especially high risk of dying from COVID-19. 

DHS statistics show 89 percent of Wisconsin’s 1,948 deaths from the virus are in people who are 60 and over, with 30 percent of those deaths occurring in the 80 to 89 age group.  

Coronavirus cases “can have really severe consequences” in long-term care locations, Palm said. Outbreaks have occurred not only among residents but among the staff who care for them as well, forcing some workers to be quarantined and creating staffing shortages, she said.

A growing number of long-term care facilities aren’t able to keep the virus from residents and staff, state and county health officials told UpNorthNews. Nursing homes in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Appleton, Wausau, and other sites across the state are reporting growing numbers of coronavirus cases that can quickly lead to deaths at those sites. 

Keri Teigen visits with her mother, Jane Tannis, in July. Tannis, 76, is a resident at Oakwood Health Services nursing home in Altoona and is among a growing number of residents at nursing homes and other congregate living sites in Wisconsin testing positive for COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of Keri Teigen)

State health department figures show there are currently 59 active investigations at long-term care sites in Milwaukee County, 42 in Dane County, 39 in Waukesha County, 25 in Kenosha County, and 37 in Brown County. Those counties have been among coronavirus hotspots since the virus began being counted in March. 

However, as COVID-19 has spread throughout Wisconsin, other areas with smaller populations are reporting multiple outbreaks at sites housing elderly people. In Marathon County, virus cases have been detected at 24 long-term care facilities. That figure is 23 in Outagamie County, 18 in La Crosse County, and 13 in Eau Claire County.

In the Clark County city of Thorp, at least seven deaths and 45 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at Oakbrook Health & Rehabilitation, a nursing home, in recent days. 

In an Oct. 23 letter, nursing home officials said 25 residents, 18 staff members and two contract workers had tested positive for the virus.

“It is with great sadness that we also report the deaths of three additional residents to the virus, which brings our total to seven,” the letter states. 

Lake Hallie Memory Care, in Chippewa County, also has experienced dozens of COVID-19 infections and multiple deaths, sources familiar with the situation there told UpNorthNews. A Lake Hallie staff member on Thursday confirmed that there have been cases of the virus detected there but declined to release additional details.

A search of obituaries and death notices in recent days shows at least eight deaths at Lake Hallie Memory Care, although it is uncertain how many are attributed to COVID-19. Chippewa County Health Director Angela Weideman said she could not confirm whether an outbreak occurred at the memory care facility, but said the number of infections and deaths at long-term care sites is rising.

“It is definitely a growing concern,” Weideman said of rising infection rates at those facilities. Because the virus can spread so quickly in congregate sites, “it is extremely important for those who work in those settings to wear property PPE and to use personal and organizational hygiene practices,” she said.   

Eau Claire County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in recent weeks as the virus has spiked there. On Monday the county reported a one-day record 178 new coronavirus cases, a number that dropped to 122 on Tuesday and 125 Thursday, although the positivity rate remains high.

“Cases at these settings are happening at a much higher rate than we were seeing a month ago,” Giese said. “Because many of these people are elderly, it is certainly a dangerous situation.”

Because of dangers related to transmitting COVID-19, Teigen and others can’t visit their loved ones in nursing homes. Teigen keeps in touch with her mother through frequent updates from her care team, who she praised for their commitment. 

Teigen said her mom’s spirits are good, but she is exhausted and has developed a “nasty cough.” She last saw her mom in early September during a brief outside visit on nursing home grounds. She hopes that won’t be their final meeting. 

“It’s terrifying to think about that, that I might not be able to see her in person again,” Teigen said. “Right now it’s just a waiting game. It’s all we can do, wait and pray.”