AARP Report: COVID-19 deaths rose, but cases fell, in nursing homes through mid-December

    Male caretaker helping senior man with walker in nursing home
    Getty Images Male caretaker helping senior man with walker in nursing home

    Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wisconsin nursing homes fell slightly in the four weeks ending Dec. 20, but the rate of deaths from the pandemic increased, according to new data released this week.

    In its monthly report on COVID-19 in nursing homes, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) said there were 2.7 deaths per 100 Wisconsin residents in the period from Nov. 23 to Dec. 20. That’s an increase from 2.11 deaths per 100 residents in the previous four weeks, and nine times the rate of resident deaths in the organization’s report for the four weeks ending Oct. 18.

    The national report draws on data that nursing homes submit to the federal government, which is run through a dashboard that the AARP Public Policy Institute developed in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio. It includes data for every state.

    Death rates are generally a lagging indicator. The spike in deaths for the most recent report reflects the surge in COVID-19 infections Wisconsin experienced throughout the state in addition to nursing homes, from late August through mid-November.

    Also in the Nov. 23-Dec. 20 report:

    • There were 9.9 new COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents per 100 residents, dropping from 13.4 per 100 residents in the previous four weeks.
    • Nursing home employees had 10.3 new  COVID-19 cases per 100 residents, down from 15.9 per 100 residents in the previous period. (The report measures the rates of employees per 100 residents because the total number of employees in a home isn’t consistently reported in the federal data, and to provide a common scale for counting residents’ and employees’ infection rates, according to AARP.)
    • Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and of nursing home staff eased slightly but remained high. There were 43.4% of homes reporting PPE shortages, down from 47.1% in the previous period, while 34.6% reported staff shortages, down from 39.7% previously.

    “Almost a year into the pandemic, we continue the clarion call that anything we can do, both big and small, to improve the health and safety of our nursing home residents and staff, matters,” stated AARP’s Wisconsin state director, Sam Wilson. “Vaccinations have started, but they will not make nursing home residents safe overnight.”

    Helen Marks Dicks, AARP’s state advocacy director for Wisconsin, told the Wisconsin Examiner that while the overall trend in cases “appears to be going downward,” it doesn’t include the year-end holidays, “which may be problematic because of family gatherings.”

    The state Senate has passed, and Gov. Tony Evers has said he will sign, a bipartisan compromise COVID-19 response bill that includes one provision related to nursing homes. That item requires homes to allow at least one “essential visitor” per resident, so long as the visitor complies with COVID-19 safety requirements. Republican leaders in the Assembly have indicated they won’t pass the bill as it is, however.

    “Nothing in the bill would make a dent in the figures specifically, since nothing covers either enhanced testing or vaccination roll out or greater mitigation strategies like masks and distancing,” Marks Dicks said.

    AARP hasn’t yet announced a formal position on the bill, but she said the visitation requirement could be “both a positive and a negative” where the nursing home dashboard is concerned.

    “There would be more people going into nursing homes doing two things,” she said, “making sure their loved ones were being protected, and perhaps bringing the virus in.”


    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.