Skip to Content

New testing criteria makes it harder to track outbreaks at assisted living facilities

Remaining Ad Time Ad - 00:00

MADISON (WKOW) -- State health officials are changing how they monitor some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19 by prioritizing testing at nursing homes over long-term care facilities. 

Right now, assisted living and long-term care facilities are being denied testing supplies to screen employees because the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said nursing homes are their "top priority."

If someone tests positive, DHS said tests will be provided but that leaves long-term care facilities unable to track asymptomatic cases.

After DHS tested all staff and residents at long-term facilities across the state they introduced new recommendations for nursing homes to test employees every two weeks.

“Our retesting guidance focuses on retesting in skilled nursing facilities because they are among the most vulnerable populations,” said Elizabeth Goodsitt, Communications Specialist with DHS.

However, assisted living facilities also care for some of the “most vulnerable” which concerns Darla Armstrong the Chief Operation Officer at Elderspan Management who's had residents and staff test positive.

“We’ve seen the horror stories across the country of outbreaks that have caused multiple deaths,” said Armstong. “All we want is to prevent that from ever happening to our residents.”

Elderspan Management oversees seven facilities across Southern Wisconsin in Dane, Iowa, Grant, and Sauk county.

In May, the state supplied tests for them to screen about 1,000 residents and staff. Five residents and two staff members tested positive, all experiencing no symptoms. Two staff members who did have symptoms also tested positive bringing the total to nine, according to Armstrong. 

In June, Elderspan retested and reported no positive cases. Weeks later Armstrong said she requested more supplies and was denied twice because of the changes in testing criteria. 

“Without symptoms they're just a ticking time bomb. We don’t know if they’re infecting other people,” she said.

This week, two health care organizations sent a letter to the National Governors Association warning states as we continue to see major spikes in COVID-19 cases the trends could lead to a “dramatic increase of cases at long-term care facilities."

Wisconsin's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard said he understands the need to test all facilities who care for seniors but “when resources apply.”   

“Your point that individuals who are exposed to our most vulnerable should be aggressively screened and tested when resources apply is a valid and I don’t disagree with that,’ Dr. Westergaard tells 27 News.

DHS said if their capacities for testing improve, routine retesting "may become available for other high-risk settings."

President of Attic Angle Community in Dane County said they understand the state is stretched for resources but also worries about potential cases getting inside their facility.

"The state has indicated there's a shortage in testing capabilities and they’re telling us to not ask for routine testing supplies anymore until they get a better handle of having enough for everyone,” said Mary Ann Drescher, President of Attic Angle.

For now, Elderspan and other assisted living facilities tell 27 News they will attempt to buy their own testing supplies, an added cost they believe is worth saving lives. 

“The more cases there are in the community the more important it is for us to be able to screen for the asymptomatic cases,” said Armstrong.

Currently in Southern Wisconsin there are 151 active investigations at long-term care and nursing facilities where at least one staff or resident tested positive for the virus. Since the pandemic began there’s been 411 public health investigations at these facilities. 

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

Skip to content