ONALASKA, Wis. — Ensuring long-term care facility residents do not contract COVID-19 is a high priority.  

This vulnerable population currently makes up 40% of coronavirus-related deaths in the nation, according to Gundersen Health System’s Dr. Elizabeth Cogbill.

“Long-term care residents make up a very small portion of the population within the United States,” she said. “It really has very disproportionately hit the long-term care community.”

Cogbill does rounds at Onalaska Care Center in La Crosse County. Like other similar facilities nationwide, staff there are tested multiple times per week for the coronavirus. The COVID-19 wing is barricaded with floor-to-ceiling plastic, accessible only through a zipper. 

Ashley Huiras has been a registered nurse for almost two years and says this has been an adjustment.

“The gowns are a lot because you’re changing in and out of them every five to ten minutes,” she said. “Your hands take a beating because you’re constantly washing them, the PAP is hard to get used to because the constant air flow really dries everything out.”

She’s referring to a hooded breathing apparatus used to filter air so staff in these units can breathe fresh oxygen.    

“It’s more difficult than I thought it was going to be, especially because the elderly population gets hit pretty hard,” Huiras said.

Some of these residents also have no seen family members since mid March. Dr. Cogbill calls the social isolation piece of COVID-19 a “tragic side-effect” for those living in long-term care communities.

“We know social isolation in the older population has bad health outcomes and impacts and we’ve definitely seen that during this pandemic,” Cogbill said.

Revenue has also decreased significantly while expenses have skyrocketed, according to administrator Marissa Janke.

“The expenses we’ve had to incur are much higher than we ever would’ve imagined and the revenue isn’t there because we’re not able to take in more residents and the people are our revenue,” Janke said. “If we’re not able to take in residents and get them well and get them home, our revenue drops and census drops while our expenses get higher.”

As nurses like Huiras work long hours to save lives, she has a message for the general public.

“I’d love to say to the public that COVID-19 is real and it’s a problem,” she said. “You really need to be wearing your masks because we’re getting slammed in here and anything anybody can do really does help.”

Long-term care residents are now in the first group to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. once it’s approved.