PESHTIGO — Marinette County is home to a daunting surge of positive coronavirus cases, spiking from 60 on July 2 to 387 entering today, according to health officials.

In fact, mid-July saw back-to-back days of more than 20 new positives. The most recent reporting date of last Friday showed 11 new cases. And as of Aug. 1, Marinette was one of 11 Wisconsin counties to have experienced more than 700 cases per 100,000 residents.

That grim trend was punctuated last week by what is believed to be at least the fourth COVID-19-related death in the county, as Peshtigo’s Rennes Health & Rehab Center’s west location reported the passing of a resident in his early 70s.

“We prayed this wouldn’t happen,” said Vikki Baumler, public relations officer for the chain of nursing homes that includes a second east campus in Peshtigo. “Our community is heartbroken.”

The county’s Department of Health Services has indicated three deaths dating back to last month, suggesting the Peshtigo death has yet to be documented.

Nursing homes have been a virus hot spot throughout the country, their vulnerable senior population and challenges with social distancing among the reasons. In Marinette County, four nursing homes have appeared on the state’s Department of Health Services investigation list — they are both Rennes locations in Peshtigo, NEWCare in Crivitz, and Luther Home in Marinette – but only the Rennes communities are experiencing growing numbers, with the west facility in the most trouble.

It requires only one positive case in a nursing home to join the list, triggering testing and inspections if needed. Assisted-living facilities are required to report any positive cases.

“It looks much worse than it is,” Darrell Lancour, CEO and administrator of Luther Home, said in regard to being under state investigation. “We were required to conduct two rounds of testing, but just to make sure we’re starting our fourth round of testing of employees this week. We had four employees test positive, and one was asymptomatic, and not a single resident.”

Sherri Benjamin, administrator of NEWCare, shares similar good news.

“We passed our inspection with flying colors,” she said noting that two staff members tested positive in July but have since returned on the heels of negative results. “Any residents who interacted with them received a visit from management and we explained things to them. They were placed in temporary isolation until those negative tests came back. And now we are back to normal.

“It was only two, so we’ll take it. It didn’t spread.”

Back in Peshtigo, a July 10 positive result for an employee at the Rennes west campus started facility-wide testing, Baumler said, after the home had seen only four positives since May. Now, with testing haven taken place multiple times for both employees (604 tests) and residents (250 tests), the numbers stand at 14 staff positives (some have returned to work) and 16 resident positives.

Still, Baumler feels those positivity percentage rates of 2.3% and 6.4%, respectively, are encouraging signs that the situation isn’t bleak.

“The majority of people who tested positive were asymptomatic. We’ll have another round of testing Tuesday, and nearly all of our residents have volunteered to be tested. With employees, it’s required,” Baumler said. “All six (residential) wings are currently under quarantine and we have a full-time infectious control nurse on site. We’re taking many measures and until we see those numbers improve we’ll continue to follow infectious protocols.”

At the east campus, the Rennes numbers show five positives among 362 employee tests and no positives among 303 resident tests, Baumler said.

In all, Lancour feels Wisconsin’s nursing homes have handled the virus admirably. According to LeadingAge Wisconsin, a non-profit group that advocates for nursing homes, only 2.8% of the state’s positive results originated in a nursing home.

“That’s a real testament to the good job by our caregivers,” he said. “That’s one of the best percentages in the country.”

Former EagleHerald Staff Writer