DHS under-counting COVID deaths at long-term care facilities, Republicans say

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) – The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) is under fire by Republican lawmakers who accuse the agency of under-reporting the number of deaths at long-term care facilities.

On Thursday, the agency announced the changes it made to how it tracks COVID-19 cases.

“As you know, we have been committed to transparency in the data we receive from the 98 local and tribal health departments throughout this pandemic,” DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said during a media briefing.

In the recent change, DHS reclassified one thousand deaths that were previously declared as “unknown” in terms of the location where they died and labeled the deaths as occurring in long-term care facilities.

“It was common for some fields to be empty or boxes left unchecked due to the inability of the disease investigator who conducted the interview to collect that type of information,” Willems Van Dijk said.

Now 45 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Wisconsin happened in long-term care, where as prior to the reclassification it was between 26 to 30 percent.

This prompted the state’s Republican party to accuse the Evers administration of under-counting, with State Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) calling for an investigation into DHS and its handling of COVID data.

“Considering today’s concerning reports that long-term care facilities were far deadlier than DHS originally reported, it’s imperative we do everything we can to protect this community as soon as possible,” U.S. Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay) said in a statement to Action 2 News.

On Wednesday, four Republican lawmakers, including Gallagher, sent a letter to the governor asking why vaccinations at assisted living facilities have been slow.

“It’s been nearly two months since vaccines became available to seniors in assisted living facilities. While states with similar assisted living populations have found ways to address these challenges, Wisconsin is far behind where we need to be,” Gallagher said in response to his letter.

The state of Wisconsin manages all the assisted living facilities, unlike the state’s nursing homes, which have to report their deaths to the federal government.

“It’s a big big job. We have a higher percentage of assisted living facilities in our state than many others do,” Willems Van Dijk said.

According to DHS, by week’s end nearly everyone involved at assisted living facilities will have had access to two doses.

“There’s many more of these…smaller facilities and we’re nearly 90 percent [complete] with their second clinic and they’re starting on that third clinic,” Dr. Stephanie Schauer, program manager of the Division of Public Health Immunization at DHS, said.

On Monday, vaccinations will open for those with pre-existing medical conditions.

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