34 dead from COVID-19 at King veterans nursing home as outbreak continues

WAUPACA COUNTY, Wis. — In just the last six days, nine residents at the Wisconsin Veteran Affairs nursing home in King passed away from COVID-19. New death totals released Thursday show a total of 34 COVID-related deaths have occurred at the home since the pandemic began; across all three VA nursing homes in Wisconsin, 45 residents have died.

The outbreak at King started slowly. In May, their first staff member tested positive; reports from July show a low but rising number of employees needing to quarantine. Towards the end of July and through August, the virus reached residents in smaller numbers. Early in September, things briefly looked up: September 3, commandant Tammy Servatius noted in her update that zero residents were in quarantine.

The respite didn’t last long. The first resident death came near the end of that month; through September and into the present, cases among residents and employees continued to rise. Chronicled through updates every few days, death totals steadily ticked upwards. 

“The staff has done a remarkable job of sticking with it, taking care of our members, doing the best that they can,” WVA Homes Division administrator Diane Lynch said.

Staffing constraints, already an issue in long term care, have been exacerbated by COVID-19 quarantines. Serving the King home’s more than 400 residents are about 700 employees, of whom about 138 in total have tested positive this year. 39 are currently sick, according to a spokesperson. In total, numbers updated on Nov. 9 showed a total of 291 cases among both residents and employees.

“Prior to Covid, long term care has seen a significant struggle with having adequate staff; then you add Covid in, and that challenge becomes even more challenging,” she noted. Staff from the federal VA have had to step in to help out, and Lynch expects that will continue through at least early December.

Covid-19 activity has been rated at very high levels in Waupaca County and many of the surrounding counties for much of the summer, according to the DHS dashboard. With 700 employees needing to maintain their family lives in the community and continue to work in the higher risk environment of the veterans home, bringing it into the facility seemed nearly inevitable.

“It’s important to remember that they are at work caring for members, but they also have a family and a life outside of work,” Lynch said. A smaller number of residents also have to occasionally leave the grounds for medical appointments.

Inside the home, residents are quarantined who test positive for COVID-19, and their interactions with staff are kept to a limited number who are trained in infectious disease control and wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Staff are required to follow CDC and DHS guidance in contact tracing, testing and quarantining, and must test negative twice or complete quarantine if they get a positive test.

Like other nursing homes around the state, inspections from the DHS’s Division of Quality Assurance have issued federal citations related to COVID-19 outbreaks at both King and Union Grove this year (the smallest VA home in Chippewa Falls, with one Covid-related death, has had no citations since the start of the pandemic). The citations range in severity: Union Grove was issued an “L” in August, a rating indicating immediate widespread jeopardy, because of multiple incidents where faculty staff were observed not wearing full personal protective equipment when working with residents. Ten residents there have died of the virus.

“Those were one, single occurrences,” Lynch said, citing one example where a person entered and left a unit with a gown in hand. “It’s a fine technicality.” A corrective plan issued afterwards centered on re-education of staff, and Lynch said the DHS had cleared the citation.

In June, before COVID-19 had begun seriously spreading among the residents at King, the Ainsworth Hall unit was issued a citation for not following safe communal dining guidelines, as well as the lack of widespread mask wearing among the residents. At the time, a staff member told the inspector according to the report that “most residents refuse to wear masks.”

“I think you would find that many facilities are getting infection control citations during Covid, and it is very difficult for members with memory loss to remember or to want to have a mask on,” Lynch explained. “We remind the members to wear that for their protection, but they have a right to choose not to.”

Both facilities issued corrective plans centering around re-education, according to DQA records. A couple weeks after the Union Grove citation, Rep. Bryan Steil sent a letter to the federal Department of Veteran Affairs calling for an investigation into the home, according to reporting from the Journal Times

As of today, November 12, I have not received any new information from the VA. This is unacceptable,” Rep. Steil said in an emailed statement to News 3 Now. “Veterans, doctors, and nurses in Union Grove deserve answers. Mitigation efforts must be taken in King, Union Grove, and Chippewa Falls to end the outbreaks and prevent additional cases.”

No new COVID-related federal citations have been issued at Union Grove or King; at King, later inspections resulted in a clean slate.

Complaints submitted confidentially to the Ombudsman program with the state’s Board of Aging and Long Term Care have primarily centered around visitation concerns, according to Jessica Trudell, counsel to the BOALTC. 

We have not identified a notable increase in calls or complaints regarding any of the VA facilities,” Trudell said after consultation with the Veteran Ombudsman Brandie Hanson, a veteran herself. “However, the nature of the calls have changed due to COVID-19 and visitation restrictions.” 

For employees, residents and their loved ones, the ongoing toll has been immense. With Thanksgiving and Christmas fast approaching, residents haven’t seen their loved ones in person for more than eight months. Now, the CDC, DHS, and nearly every major health official is asking those high at risk to make it through a holiday season without those in-person gatherings

“It is a difficult long haul,” Lynch said. “Some people have seen a slight decline in their overall well-being, because we all thrive on family interaction.”

Naomi Kowles and the News 3 Investigates team can be reached at news3investigates@wisctv.com