Wisconsin nursing homes see spike in COVID-19 cases as federal vaccine mandate for staff looms

NOW: Wisconsin nursing homes see spike in COVID-19 cases as federal vaccine mandate for staff looms

MADISON Wis. (CBS 58) -- Nursing homes in Wisconsin are experiencing a spike in COVID-19 infections as the highly contagious delta variant continues to drive up cases and facilities prepare for a federal vaccine requirement for workers.

Wisconsin's nursing homes reported 55 residents tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of August 23rd to 29th, the highest weekly total since January, according to data tracked by the federal government.

While nursing home residents and staff were some of the first offered the vaccine in December, some industry leaders say a spike in new infections has largely been linked to breakthrough cases with residents experiencing mild symptoms.

"The good news is they are less likely to be hospitalized and thankfully have an even lower chance of dying because of the vaccine," said John Sauer, President and CEO of LeadingAge Wisconsin.

During the same time period in August, five nursing home residents died. Compared to November 2020, during the peak of the pandemic, on average 100 to 170 residents were dying from COVID-19. 

The uptick in cases at these facilities has as some officials worried it could impact visitation policies if infections rates don't dwindle.

"My biggest concern is that if we're not successful in doing so, that means we're going to have to start dialing back on visitation," said Rick Abrams, President and CEO, WI Health Care Association/WI Center for Assisted Living. "Last year when visitation was limited, it just so difficult for everybody."

Currently, 62% of nursing home staff in Wisconsin are fully vaccinated, according to federal data. Meanwhile, 86% of residents are vaccinated.

The spike in COVID-19 cases comes as the Biden administration announced a series of mandates that would require staff at long-term care facilities to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Under President Joe Biden's plan, long-term care settings that participate would continue to receive federal Medicare and Medicaid funding, but those who don't enforce a vaccine requirement for workers would be a risk of losing those funds. The rule would apply to nearly all nursing homes in Wisconsin. 

The mandate got mixed reviews as some industry leaders and advocates fear it would impact an already strained industry suffering from a worker shortage.

"If we get staff who are on the fence about getting vaccinated and they have other options in the health care industry, I'm afraid what that's going to do to the employment base in long-term care," said Sauer. 

Additional proposed rules were then announced by the White House to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for private businesses with more than 100 employees. It was a decision Sauer and Abrams support since it would no longer just target their industry.

"It's a positive that the mandate now applies across the health care continuum," said Abrams.

Details remain unknown on when the federal vaccine requirements would go into effect. Additional details from the White House are expected this week.

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