Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services will be testing every nursing home resident in the state for COVID-19, starting this month. The tests will be free to facility residents.
Governor Evers announced the testing plans in a press briefing earlier today.
“The state will provide free testing and diagnostics to all 373 nursing homes to test all nursing home residents and staff. To get this done, we anticipate testing over 10,000 residents and staff per week during the month of May,” he says. “Teams of public and private sector partners will begin calling nursing home facilities today to coordinate supplies, logistics and test results.”
As of today, Wisconsin has had 546 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, according to the Department of Health Services. That’s approximately 7% of Wisconsin’s confirmed cases.
The DHS divides long-term care facilities into two categories; skilled nursing facilities, also known as nursing homes, and assisted living facilities. Assisted living facilities require less medical infrastructure and skilled personnel than nursing homes.
Nursing home residents are acutely susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 7000 nursing home residents have died due to COVID-19, reports The New York Times. Approximately 20% of the nation’s COVID-related deaths are nursing home residents.
To prevent further community spread, Governor Evers closed all nursing home facilities to outside visitors as part of his safer at home order. Non-essential nursing home visits won’t be permitted until a vaccine for COVID-19 has been created and implemented, according to the Governor’s Badger Bounceback Plan,
The restrictions outlined in the Badger Bounceback Plan, while strict, are in line with federal health officials’ recommendations, says Ryan Westergaard. Westergaard is the Chief Medical Officer of Wisconsin’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases.
“They really have a high barrier to try to do as much as we can to prevent asymptomatic people from introducing the infection into nursing homes. That really high standard of trying to protect the most vulnerable populations resulted in some pretty stringent visitation restrictions,” he says. “Until we get to a point where we have other ways to protect residents, limitations on visitation is probably going to be here. We’re hopeful that there will be a vaccine eventually but it’s not going to be in the next 12 months.”
The DHS will be working with county and city-level health service agencies to coordinate the effort, says DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm. County health services have taken the lead in many of the state’s COVID-19 responses, such as contact tracing.
“We have been working with local public health and local systems…Different communities will be different, as they always are, and we’ve got teams of folks who are prepared to do outreach to make sure that this testing capacity, this asset that we’re prepared to deploy, is meeting the needs of local facilities,” she says.
Several county health agencies have faced criticism in the past for their lack of transparency in reporting COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Health officials won’t confirm outbreaks at specific facilities due to “privacy concerns.”
The nursing facilities themselves have also faced criticism for a lack of communication. Some residents have been stonewalled when attempting to reach out to facilities to check in on loved ones, reports the Journal Sentinel.