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Several Wisconsin Nursing Homes Failed to Protect Residents From Pandemic Dangers

COVID-19 has affected countless Wisconsin residents’ lives, but our nursing home population has been one of the groups that was hit hardest. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, as of early January 2022, the number of Wisconsin nursing home residents with confirmed COVID-19 cases was 10,114. The weekly nursing home resident death rate in the state was 0.47 per 1,000 residents.

There are several possible explanations as to why nursing home residents have been so susceptible to COVID-19 compared to other groups of people. Unfortunately, one of the biggest reasons is that many nursing home facilities have neglected their patients and refused to follow suggested protocols. In many cases, these abusive and neglectful behaviors went unreported because residents weren’t able to contact their loved ones to report what was happening, and family members couldn’t visit and look for signs of inadequate care. 

At Boller & Vaughan, we are passionate about helping nursing home residents and their families seek justice for neglect and inadequate care. Sadly, many Wisconsin nursing homes haven’t worked hard enough to protect their residents from the risks of COVID-19.

If your loved one has been neglected or abused at their nursing home during the pandemic, we’ll help you understand your legal options. Contact our Madison office today at 608-268-0268, or schedule an appointment online.

COVID-19 deaths rising in Wisconsin nursing homes

An October 2021 report from Wisconsin Public Radio shows that COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes are still extremely high, despite the availability of vaccines. Deaths of nursing home residents in the state doubled in a month from mid-August to mid-September. 

According to the WPR report, although 88 percent of residents in Wisconsin nursing homes are vaccinated, only 65 percent of staff members are. The state director of AARP Wisconsin, Sam Wilson, says that the unvaccinated workers have a high risk of bringing the virus into nursing home facilities and infecting residents. 

Although vaccinated individuals may still become infected with COVID-19, these “breakthrough cases” generally include very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, older adults with underlying medical conditions and other vulnerable populations may still die with a breakthrough case. 

One-third of Wisconsin nursing homes violated COVID-19 protocols

In April 2021, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published the results of its investigation into nursing home safety during the pandemic. Investigators studied data from federal and state nursing home inspection reports made between March 2020 and January 2021. The investigation found that 133 (out of 360) Wisconsin facilities were cited for violating COVID-19 protocols. 

Some nursing homes incurred multiple violations. Even more disturbing was that 66 percent of violations occurred after July 2020, which was several months into the pandemic when access to testing and masks was better than in earlier months.

There were several different types of citations given to these nursing home facilities. The most common violation involved the incorrect use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gowns and masks. Over 70 percent of nursing homes that were cited had instances of incorrect PPE usage. 

In some cases, nursing homes had stockpiles of PPE that they refused to give to staff members. Employees at Tomah Nursing and Rehabilitation in Tomah said they were forced to use plastic garbage bags as gowns because they weren’t given access to the storage room where PPE was stored. The same facility received other citations involving neglect of patients with COVID, two of whom ended up dying.

Another common violation was related to social distancing and isolation protocols. Nearly one-third of nursing homes that received citations did so because they failed to enforce social distancing, didn’t isolate/quarantine residents or staff and allowed residents with COVID-19 to interact with uninfected residents. 

Many nursing homes didn’t follow the rules for testing/screening visitors and employees. One facility in Juneau County didn’t test any residents or staff members for four months, despite having received a rapid testing machine. Another nursing home in Milwaukee spent two weeks in July accepting nearly 200 visitors without taking their temperatures.

There is another factor that has affected many nursing homes’ ability to react property to the pandemic: understaffing. Studies have long indicated that nursing homes are understaffed, and this problem has had devastating consequences during the pandemic. As staff members became infected with COVID, facilities that were already understaffed have had to function with even fewer workers.

Nearly 10 percent of the 133 nursing homes cited for COVID violations indicated that understaffing was a contributing factor. Despite having inadequate staffing numbers, however, many facilities continued to accept new residents. Additionally, 13 Wisconsin facilities were found to have allowed staff members to work even though they had symptoms and/or where within the isolation window following a positive COVID-19 test. 

Why is COVID-19 so dangerous for nursing home patients?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that nursing home and assisted living residents are particularly susceptible to COVID-19. One reason is that the communal nature of these types of facilities makes it easier for the virus to spread. Additionally, many nursing home residents have underlying medical conditions, which the coronavirus often exacerbates. 

A study published in the Oxford Academic QJM International Journal of Medicine indicates that nursing home residents are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than older adults with similar conditions who do not live in nursing homes. Data used in this study indicates that COVID-19 incidence rates in nursing homes were 13 times higher than in the community-dwelling adults in the same demographic. 

Researchers believe that COVID-19 safety protocols, such as lockdowns, prohibited family members from visiting and providing informal care and social support. Losing this support system prevented many nursing home residents from reporting abuse and/or neglect and prevented family members from being able to see the signs of such behavior themselves.  

With the continued threat of COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to find a safe and reputable facility when you’re looking for a nursing home for a parent or loved one. There are several essential signs of good care to look for when you are researching these facilities. Even after choosing a reputable nursing home, it’s important to remain vigilant and watch for signs of neglect or abuse so you can take action as soon as possible. 

Boller & Vaughan advocates for Wisconsin victims of nursing home abuse

Elder abuse in Wisconsin nursing homes was a problem before COVID-19, but the pandemic has shed more light on the level of neglect and abuse in some of these facilities. Visiting restrictions and other pandemic protocols have made it harder for some families to get an accurate picture of how their loved ones are being treated. 

At Boller & Vaughan, we’ve seen how many Wisconsin nursing homes have failed to do enough to protect their residents from the risks of COVID-19. Our team is committed to seeking justice for victims of abuse and neglect. 

Schedule a free consultation to discuss your loved one’s care in their nursing home or assisted living facility. We’ll help you figure out the next step in the legal process.

Call our Madison office at 608-268-0268, or schedule an appointment online.