As part of a statewide push to keep vulnerable populations safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, three of the four long-term care facilities in Douglas County took part in a testing initiative June 2.

A total of 176 residents and 255 staff members were tested at Middle River Health and Rehabilitation Center, Villa Marina Health and Rehabilitation Center and Twin Ports Health Services, according to Douglas County Public Health Officer Kathy Ronchi.

One positive result came back from Twin Ports Health Services. Kristin Mueller, senior director of communications for the facility’s parent corporation, North Shore Healthcare, said the person has undergone subsequent COVID-19 tests, with the results coming back negative.

“We continue to restrict visitation, screen staff and essential visitors who enter the center, closely monitor residents for signs and symptoms, discontinue communal dining and activities, and more,” Mueller said. “Since the initial positive test result came back, we have been working closely with public health and following the proper precautions to help mitigate any possible spread of the virus.”

The entire facility — 158 staff and residents — was retested Monday, June 15. All the results came back negative, Ronchi confirmed Friday.

The fact that only one case of the highly contagious disease was found is a credit to that facility, Ronchi said.

“They’ve been working very hard, the nursing staff. The director of nursing there has been working very, very hard to protect people within their environment, and I would say that the fact that it didn’t spread throughout shows that they’re doing good practices there,” Ronchi said.

The person with the positive result had been reportedly asymptomatic prior to testing, she said.

Twin Ports Health Services chose to take part in the facility-wide testing although it wasn’t mandatory.

“We believe that testing is critical in properly identifying the possible impact the virus has on our center, as well as guide us in any additional steps that must be taken to further protect our residents and staff,” Mueller said.

No one wants to get a positive result, Ronchi said, but she stressed how well Twin Ports Health Services handled it.

Screening options

Washburn and Douglas County public health officials joined forces with the Wisconsin National Guard to administer 171 COVID-19 tests May 6 at the Solon Springs Community Center. One test came back positive, but the person did not live in Washburn or Douglas counties. Ronchi said no additional large-scale testing is planned for the county, which as of Friday had 20 positive cases.

Most local COVID-19 screening is done in Duluth, Ronchi said. St. Luke’s provides testing for people experiencing symptoms at its respiratory clinic in Hermantown; Essentia Health has a mobile testing site in West Duluth. Lake Superior Community Health Center offers COVID-19 screening at its Superior location.

Antibody testing is in the early stages right now, Ronchi said, and won’t be implemented until they are confirmed to be accurate. Widespread antibody testing is the only way to know for certain whether the disease has already passed through the county and there is community immunity.

At this point, Ronchi said her decisions are based on keeping everyone safe.

“It’s the vulnerable that I have to protect and that’s who I have to take into consideration as decisions get made,” Ronchi said. “As much as I want people to return to normal, I have to be thinking about that unintended consequence of people getting back to normal life.”

Restrictions have gradually been eased. As of June 12, the Douglas County Health Department advised against mass gatherings of more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. Events where social distancing cannot be achieved, such as sport events involving close contact, should be postponed.

“It’s not about controlling people,” Ronchi said. “It’s about protecting those who maybe can’t protect themselves.”

It helps that community members and businesses in Douglas County have taken recommended COVID-19 precautions to heart, from wearing masks and washing hands more frequently to keeping social distance.

“For the most part, I think people have really tried to take care of each other. I don’t think I can say that enough about our community,” Ronchi said.

Visit the Douglas County website for more information on COVID-19 restrictions.