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U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, who represents Wisconsin’s 1st Congressional District.

UNION GROVE ⏤ U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil isn’t satisfied with the answers he’s received concerning an August COVID-19 outbreak at the Wisconsin Veterans Home.

U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil’s letter to state Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar, dated Nov. 23. Image provided.

On Monday, the congressman wrote state Department of Veterans Affairs Director Mary Kolar asking for further answers into the situation. An investigation by the federal Secretary of Veterans Affairs’ office, which the congressman called for, directed Steil’s line of questioning. 

Steil called on the state VA and the Veterans Home to explain why they declined assistance at the facility until its outbreak in August, which led to nine deaths.

The Wisconsin Veterans Home in Union Grove is a state-run nursing home. It has no affiliation with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, Milwaukee VA, or Union Grove Clinic.

“It is my further understanding that this offer from the U.S. OVA was to provide the assistance without cost to the State of Wisconsin or WDVA,” Steil wrote in his letter dated Nov. 23. “Can you please provide an explanation for why this assistance was initially declined? Can you also detail the extent of Federal assistance Wl OVA has received since the initial outbreak occurred? 

“Finally, can you please provide me with details about any other offers of Federal assistance that your agency has declined during the COVID-19 outbreak?”

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Veterans Home declined assistance

“Since March 27, 2020, the SVH VA Medical Facility Representative received daily updates about resident and staff member testing and infections,” the federal VA findings, released Nov. 18, state. “At the direction of Milwaukee’s VAMC Director, the SVH VA Medical Facility Representative offered the Wisconsin SVH at Union Grove consultation and staffing support on May 27, 2020. 

The first page of the federal Secretary of Veterans Affairs’ office report on the Aug. 3 outbreak at the Wisconsin Veterans Home, highlighting the origin of the outbreak and the facility declining assistance until the outbreak. Image provided.

“At that time, SVH leadership declined this assistance until the outbreak in August 2020.”

Origin of Outbreak

According to the findings, the outbreak at the Veterans Home started when two veterans tested positive on Aug. 3. A staff member who worked in the same locked memory care unit as those residents reported a positive test result on Aug. 2. That staff member last worked on the locked memory care unit on July 23.

In response, facility management assigned staff on the locked memory care unit to only work that unit to stop further spread. Management instructed other staff not to enter the locked memory care unit.

The federal VA set Aug. 3 as the date of the outbreak.

9  residents of Veterans Home die of COVID-19

To mitigate the spread, the Veterans Home tested all unit residents and 150 staff members on Aug. 4. They did so again on Aug. 7. On that day, the facility tested all 153 residents. Twenty-eight veterans tested positive.

Nine of those veterans died from COVID-19. Four of them were on hospice care prior to infection, the federal VA noted. Nineteen veterans recovered.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report

“Additionally, 26 of 28 staff members testing positive for COVID-19 have recovered,” the report states. “The outbreak was contained within 30 days. Visitors have not been permitted to the home since early in the pandemic response.”

The facility required staff to wear masks before entering residences starting in March. Staff also encouraged residents to stay in their rooms and wear masks.

State VA responds to findings

In a response to the findings sent to the Racine County Eye and The Uptown Observer Monday, Carla Vigue, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, first highlighted the Veterans Home was “able to keep coronavirus out of our facility until August.”

“Unfortunately, during this time, many nursing homes in the region, state, and nation were not able to prevent the virus from entering their facilities as we did,” Vigue said. “Our staff are to be commended. In May, we did not have the virus in our facility. We did not require staffing assistance from the federal VA while we were successfully keeping the virus at bay.

“That said, from the beginning of the pandemic, we did happily work in consultation with them, receiving and implementing their advice and recommendations.”

Virus eliminated from facility in a month 

The Veterans Home deemed it necessary to ask for staffing assistance only after their first cases occurred. Federal personnel were at the Veterans Home for about a month addressing the issue, Vigue noted.

“In that time, we were able to successfully eliminate all cases of COVID-19 among our residents,” she said. “We appreciate their assistance.”

The federal VA “limits the number of days and has requirements a facility must meet” to provide assistance, she added.

“It’s also important to understand that some in nursing homes, particularly those with memory issues, are better served by the staff with whom they are familiar,” she said.

State numbers significantly higher than during outbreak

She also called on Steil to join with the Veterans Home in pushing for everyone to follow COVID-19 safety precautions. 

According to the state Department of Health Services data, on Aug. 3, the day of the facility’s outbreak, the state saw a total of 765 positive cases. The seven-day percentage positive by test rested at 5.7%. The seven-day average percent positive per person sat at 8%.

On Nov. 22, the last daily summary data available on the DHS website Tuesday morning, the state reported 2,808 positive tests. The seven-day percentage positive by test sat at 13.3%. The seven-day average percent positive per person sat at 29.3%.

Wisconsin COVID-19 data for Nov. 11, the latest significant spike in positive cases in the state. Screenshot. Source: Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Those numbers are showing a decline from the latest COVID-19 spike in the state. That spike, occurring on Nov. 11, consisted of 9,371 positive cases reported that day. That equated to a seven-day percentage positive by test of 17.8%, according to DHS. On that day, the seven-day average percent positive by person in the state ballooned to 37.5%.

‘They are at risk’

“Each day that COVID-19 activity remains critically high in this state is a day that puts our residents and employees at our Wisconsin Veterans Homes at risk for contracting this terrible virus,” Vigue said. “What happens outside our doors affects us. We don’t operate in a bubble. Staff need to go out in the community once they leave work. They need to get gas and groceries, need to pick their kids up from school and childcare. They need to go to their own medical appointments. 

“We also have many residents who are required to leave the building for essential medical and other appointments. Every time they are out in the community, they are at risk. And they risk bringing the virus back to our facilities.”

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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Daniel Thompson is an independent journalist and the founder of The Uptown Observer based in the Kenosha, Wis., area. He started in journalism at the Western Nebraska Observer in 2012 and, most notably,...