DOVER — Low staffing was a concern before the pandemic at the Veterans Home at Union Grove, a nursing home for military veterans and their families in Dover, and remains so now that it is experiencing its second deadly COVID-19 outbreak.
During the first outbreak in the summer, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs — which operates the home — received help in the form of 13 federal Department of Veterans Affairs employees. The home needed the help since so many of its staffers had tested positive.
As of Friday, federal help had not been requested amid the second outbreak, but “that can change at any minute” as “we are constantly assessing and reassessing our ability to effectively serve those who live with us,” said Carla Vigue, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs. “Of course, we don’t have a hard and fast threshold that would trigger such a request … If we reach a point where our ability to provide top quality care to our residents is in question, we will not hesitate to request assistance.
The VA indicated it is ready and willing to provide help if needed. “(The) VA stands ready (to) support the department’s ‘Fourth Mission’ to surge capabilities into civilian health care systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues,” Charity Hardison, public affairs officer for the VA Great Lakes Health Care System, said in an email. Despite concerns about medical capabilities stretched thin, Hardison said that the VA is not facing staffing shortages that would force it to limit surge responses.
“We are grateful for the assistance provided to us by the federal VA last Fall. Those nurses were an essential part of the team that worked so hard to bring an end to the cases of coronavirus among our residents,” Vigue said in an email.
At least 12 coronavirus-linked deaths have been confirmed at the facility since the start of the pandemic, 10 of which occurred during the summer and the other two since December.
On Monday, DVA reported that there were 24 active positive COVID-19 cases linked to the facility: 15 residents and nine staff members. On Wednesday, there were 27 active cases: 15 residents and 12 employees. By Friday, there were 18 active cases: 11 residents and seven employees.
Vaccinations began this month at the facility.
A continuous problem
State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, says he is keeping a close eye on the situation.
One of those who recently died after catching COVID at the facility, Joe Nosalik, was retired nurse and police officer who had been Wanggaard’s partner for more than a decade on the Racine Police Department. Nosalik, who was also battling Parkinson’s and Lewy body dementia, died on Dec. 21.
“He was pretty phenomenal … a huge loss,” Wanggaard said of his late friend during a Monday phone interview.
Throughout the 2010s, staffing at Wisconsin’s three veterans homes (in Dover, King and Chippewa Falls) led to concerns of neglect due to there being not enough medical staff to care for the aging vets. At the Veterans Home at Union Grove, it was reported that sometimes nurses would work double-shifts on back-to-back days, get a day off, then have back-to-back 16-hour shifts.
“They’re working those extra hours because they don’t have the staff to cover all those extra shifts,” Wanggaard said.
The state Legislature has been looking for ways to increase staffing levels at those facilities, including by raising pay nurses and other medical staffers. Gov. Tony Evers’ Task Force on Caregiving in September was reviewing proposals aimed at boosting wages, benefits and recruitment of paid caregivers and expanding supports for unpaid family caregivers. But none of that has been voted on yet in the Legislature, which is currently in the process of creating a second COVID-19 package; the last time the Legislature voted on anything, it was on the first COVID package in April.
“We worked to increase pay and training. But when all this stuff (the coronavirus) hit, we’ve had such an impact on all the medical resources we have statewide, it’s really difficult to find people we have statewide to feel those gaps,” Wanggaard said. “We as a Legislature need to look at getting to boost those salaries of those who have gone the extra mile.”
Of the nurses and other medical professionals who remain, Wanggaard said: “My God, they have stepped up to the plate.”
249 people in Racine County lost their lives after catching COVID in 2020. Here are some of their stories
Beloved mothers. A barber who ran his shop like Floyd Lawson on "The Andy Griffith Show." A nurse/Marine/cop. A fisherman who "wasn't ready to go." Racine County lost nearly 250 people to COVID-19 last year. Here are some of their stories.
By the numbers
According to official data, Wisconsin reported 481,102 positive cases of COVID-19 in 2020. Since the first deaths were reported March 19, 4,859 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 in Wisconsin. In Racine County, 249 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 in 2020, with 17,628 confirmed cases; 90 of those deaths and 7,055 of the cases were reported in the City of Racine. Nationwide, more than 345,000 American deaths were attributed to COVID-19, with approximately 20 million testing positive throughout the year. As many as 1 in 5 of those who tested positive reported lingering symptoms, according to the World Health Organization. In December, 77,000 Americans died from COVID-19, an average of 2,483 per day, with more than 3,000 deaths being reported in one day several times; for perspective, there were 2,977 victims of the 9/11 attacks.
Haarsma died of COVID-19 on Oct. 28. His son has been thinking about all the things that brought the coronavirus from China to Wisconsin. “Without COVID, he would still be sitting here,” he said. “If one person didn’t go here or fly there—”
Family and friends remember Glenn Collins, who operated a barbershop in downtown Waterford for nearly 60 years before succumbing to COVID-19 at the age of 83. "He liked everybody, and everybody liked him," his son said.
When asked if her husband ever had time to sleep, Sue Nosalik laughed loudly. “No,” she replied. For decades, Joe Nosalik was both a nurse and a police officer in Racine.
The speed of the decline is what still has Carol Hall's family shaken. Maybe 50 days before her death, the 89-year-old was in near-perfect health. Now, she’s gone.
Callie Tatum had seven kids. She called each of them every day. When she was in the hospital with COVID, her kids had to make a plan so they wouldn't all inundate the doctors with calls all day long, checking in on their matriarch.
“Joyce had a charm, wit, and undying love to those who were her friends and family,” the former Mrs. Wisconsin's children said in an email following her Nov. 5 passing from COVID-19. “She was simply an amazing mom, filled with a zest and zeal for life, all bundled up into one marvelous package. She was the first to compliment a person and make them feel good. This included family and friends – and even total strangers. Seeing others smile provided her great joy. She loved giving gifts to her family, and even strangers. She was just that kind of person.”
Dr. Bill Boyd is remembered for his academic career, love of sailing and kindness. Did you know that Boyd had a role in helping the comedy classic "Animal House" being filmed?
Racine County has reached a grim milestone: 100 COVID-19 deaths. There is still no telling how many more deaths are to come before this pandemic is over, especially as Wisconsin remains as a nationwide hot spot.
“This is definitely something our family never thought would happen to us,” his mother said. She said that her son's obituary included information about how Biddle died from coronavirus because most people, especially young people, don’t think this could happen to them.