CBS 58 Investigates: Residents of long-term care facilities at high risk of coronavirus
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – Long-term care facilities have stopped visitors, trips, and group activities to try and prevent the spread of coronavirus. A CBS 58 Investigation found residents are still put at risk because of the design of these facilities. Changes to how these places operate are ongoing, but future changes may be needed past the pandemic.
“It feels very surreal to be totally honest,” said Ozaukee Washington Health Officer Kirsten Johnson.
She has trained for this moment her whole career.
“We had one of our very first positive cases out of a long-term care facility, and within 48 hours, somebody from that long-term care facility had passed away,” said Johnson.
She watches over 148 long-term care facilities in her region, ranging from nursing homes to assisted living. Each facility provides a different level of care and support and follows different rules.
“We’ve got cases in independent living all the way down to end of life memory care units,” said Johnson.
But they all share one thing in common, elderly residents at risk of coronavirus.
“You’ve got a building full of people with underlying health conditions,” said University of Wisconsin Professor Barbara Bowers.
She has studied staffing, training, and turnover at long-term care facilities for 30 years. She said coronavirus added fuel to a long smoldering situation.
“You put this horrific infection and high level of contagion on top of it, and it’s, you know, like lighting a match,” said Bowers.
CBS 58 Investigates reviewed federal nursing home inspections from the last three years. During that time inspectors cited 75 nursing homes in our area at least once for infection control problems. Some were cited three, five, even six times. The most common observations were staff not washing their hands, staff not wearing gloves or masks, or staff not sanitizing medical devices between patients. Bowers was not surprised by our findings.
“Hand washing is something that people just don’t do, anywhere near the level that they should. It’s neglected everywhere,” said Bowers.
Bowers said there’s constant churn among staff. Low pay and hard work make it hard to keep people. Some facilities rely on staffing agencies to bring people in.
“A nurse might go into a different place each day or every couple of days,” said Bowers.
She believes no facility was ready for this pandemic, but said different rules leave some more vulnerable than others.
“The training for the staff, the staffing levels, and staffing consistency are different,” said Bowers.
Johnson ordered long-term care facilities to lock down, stop sharing staff, and have first responders wear masks to limit the spread of infection.
“We think it has been successful. We know some facilities have had a harder time following those guidelines than others,” said Johnson.
She’s had eight outbreaks so far. Wisconsin reported 334 cases in long-term care facilities as of Wednesday. But the state and nearly all counties in our area refuse to name the facilities.
“We’re reaching a point where people are going to die no matter what. That’s, that’s really hard, really hard,” said Johnson.
The state has recommended long-term care facilities follow a number of preventative measures, similar to what Johnson ordered. It has also put non-essential inspections on hold to try and prevent spreading coronavirus further.