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UNION GROVE – Twenty-three people associated with the Wisconsin Veteran’s Home here — 12 members and 11 staff — have the COVID-19 virus. But, there are indications that those numbers are climbing.

A source who wished not to be named by the Racine County Eye said as of Thursday afternoon, 14 members of an 18-member locked residential unit that serves people who have dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have COVID-19. Also, three nurses and 12 staff have tested positive for the virus.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs (WDVA) Secretary Mary Kolar reported that the residents had recently started showing COVID-19 symptoms at the Wisconsin Veteran’s Home. 

In a statement issued Thursday, Kolar said:

“This is a challenging and stressful time for all of us. I want you to know that we value each and every person who lives here, and our staff are absolutely dedicated to taking care of them. One of the best things about working at our Union Grove Home is the strong relationships we have all developed with Members, the community atmosphere, and the sense of pride we have for taking care of our nation’s heroes. We have an amazing staff, and I have witnessed them rising to many challenges, just as they will rise to this one.”

The Wisconsin Veteran’s Home in Union Grove is a state-run nursing home and not affiliated with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, Milwaukee VA, or Union Grove Clinic.

Before this week, Wisconsin was listed as one of just 15 states where no residents of state veterans’ homes had the infection since the pandemic started earlier this year. But now, things have changed. Testing is ongoing, and the number of cases reported is a fluid situation, said Carla Vigue, a WDVA spokesperson.

“So when we do get a notification of a positive COVID-19 case, we are required by law to notify the public by 5 p.m. the next day,” she said.

Former Racine resident tests positive

Marshall Folger’s father, Jim Folger, tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Jim, who is asymptomatic, has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in the unit that has been impacted by the virus at the Veterans Home.

A South Dakota farm boy, he served in the South Dakota National Guard in intelligence. He even met President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Later, he worked as an internal auditor for JI Case and Safeway Steel.

“If he showed up at a Safeway Steel branch unannounced, someone was getting fired,” he said.

Now Jim is confined to his room in a wheelchair.

In March, Marshall saw his dad for a regular visit. He also saw him last month. They wore masks, spoke through a fence, and stayed six-feet apart. Even then, his father’s mind wasn’t what it used to be. Jim recognizes Marshall’s face, but Jim can’t communicate what he wants to.

“You know, I haven’t been able to touch my dad since March,” Marshall said. “And I’m pretty much afraid that I’m never going to get to see or hug him again until he’s gone.”

With limited contact from the outside world, he’ll battle for his life on two fronts: COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease. Even though he’s asymptomatic, Marshall knows that could change. But he still believes his dad can beat the disease.

“He’s got a pretty good immune system, you know, but he shouldn’t have caught it there,” he said.

Tough decisions made around staffing

As veterans’ homes and private nursing homes around the United States have seen COVID-19 cases surge, Kolar said they learned how to contain it. To curb a potential outbreak,  the WDVA has “held fast to the strictest protocols to beat the odds.”

Like healthcare facilities across the nation, the Wisconsin Veterans Home in Union Grove hasn’t been immune to nursing shortages.

Sources tell the Racine County Eye that staffing agencies contracted with the state have brought in more certified nursing assistants (CNAs). To curb the rate of transmission, they required the contracted staff to work for the veterans home exclusively. But staffing levels remain an issue.

Staff employed by the state have had a different experience. Administrators forced staff directly employed by the Veterans Home to work overtime. Some of them have worked up to 60 hours per week. On some units, one nurse works on a 20-person unit, and one CNA is assigned to care for a 10-person unit. In locked units ⏤ where people have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease ⏤ three CNAs and one nurse are assigned, sources said.

Marshall saw this breakdown in staffing happening even before the facility shutdown on the dementia unit, which is locked down to protect those that live there.

“They should have at least four people on that floor at all times,” he said. “But they don’t. Sometimes they only have two people on the floor. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happen myself. There is too much hit and miss, in my mind, over there with the things they do. If a CNA goes on break, there is supposed to be one to take their place to stay at the same levels all the time. It doesn’t happen.”

To address the staffing issue, the department has requested additional staffing. They are also asking the federal VA to bring in more staff.

But Vigue downplayed the problem, saying that the staffing model they use is based on a high ratio of nurse hours per patient, and that model exceeds requirements.

“We do this because we want to provide the best possible care possible to those who live with us. That said, there is a national nursing shortage that has existed for quite some time now,” Vigue said. “To address some staffing issues, we did put together an employee workgroup that shares concerns and brings ideas to management. Some of their ideas have been adopted.”

“We are making a request for support from the National Guard to help us with testing so we can free up our staff who would have otherwise been performing this task,” Vigue said.

COVID-19 cases at the Wisconsin Veteran’s Home on the rise, now what?

According to the WDVA, the members reside in private rooms and will be quarantined there. Visitors will no longer be allowed on the campus. But people can drop off supplies and other items at a security checkpoint.

The department expects to have all of the test results by Monday. They plan to retest members and staff in 14 days.

Additional policies being implemented include:

  • Limited staff will work with the members. These staff have been trained in infectious disease control and will be wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including N95 masks and face shields.
  • Care will be coordinated with members’ primary care physician.
  • Staff will follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services regarding contact tracing, additional testing, and quarantining others, as necessary.
  • All members and campus staff will be immediately re-tested for COVID-19.

In making the announcement, Kolar made a plea to the public to practice protocols that help to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“If not for yourself, will you do it for them? Over 700 veterans and eligible family members live at our Wisconsin Veterans Homes,” she wrote. “Please for those who have served our country and those who support them, stay home whenever you can, wear a mask when you’re out, and try to stay at least six feet away from other people. We’re in this for the duration and your actions will help us win the battle against the virus.”

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.