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ELKHORN

A previously unnamed Walworth County facility with a COVID-19 outbreak is Holton Manor in Elkhorn and not the Birds Eye food processing plant, whose outbreak came as a “surprise” to the county, a health official said Monday.

County officials Monday also reported two more deaths from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the county’s total to seven.

Last week, Walworth County initially refused to identify the Geneva Lake Manor nursing home as the first congregate care facility with an outbreak. That changed quickly after county officials, who received multiple open records requests from the media, decided to issue a public health order for the facility Friday.

Holton Manor, 645 N. Church St., Elkhorn, has not required an order from the county, which is a step that Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director of the county’s Department of Health & Human Services, called a “big deal.”

Holton Manor is a sister facility of Geneva Lake Manor.

Absent such an order, county officials had declined to publicly name Holton Manor as the other congregate care facility with an outbreak, which officials define as three or more “residents or staff from the same unit with illness onsets within 72 hours of each other.”

Nevicosi said late last week and reiterated Monday morning that the facility would lead the process in publicly identifying itself. County officials then named the facility Monday afternoon.

Nevicosi said Monday that officials feel more confident about how the outbreak has been managed at Holton Manor, a rehab and senior care facility. This outbreak is “far more controlled” and not at the magnitude of the outbreaks at Geneva Lake Manor and Birds Eye, he said.

He said the county had been in touch with Holton Manor as recently as Monday morning.

Before Holton Manor’s identity was released, The Gazette filed an open records request with the county for the name of the facility.

Later Monday, officials with the company that oversees Geneva Lake Manor and Holton Manor released a statement saying all of the measures ordered by the county were already part of the “exhaustive steps” being taken at the facilities.

The statement says the county did not seek to verify whether those measures were happening before giving the order.

“Administrators and staff took exhaustive steps and measures to minimize COVID-19, starting March 6,” the statement from the Wisconsin Illinois Senior Housing Inc. Board of Directors says.

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This aerial photo shows the Birds Eye vegetable processing facility in the town of Darien in 2018.

Birds Eye update

Before Monday, it appeared possible that Birds Eye could have been that previously unnamed facility. But that was not the case: Nevicosi said the county had not identified an outbreak at Birds Eye prior to The Gazette’s story.

A spokesman for Conagra, the company that owns the Darien plant, told The Gazette on Saturday night that about 20 employees at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19 and that the company will suspend operations in a “vast majority” of the plant until April 27.

That news came after The Gazette earlier Saturday reported that six employees had tested positive, according to an internal company email from Friday that a concerned employee shared with a reporter.

The Conagra spokesman, Daniel Hare, said in an email Monday that 22 employees have tested positive. The company has about 800 employees, he said.

Nevicosi said Monday that about half of the Birds Eye employees who were tested for COVID-19 went to an Illinois clinic that did not initially report the results to the county’s health department.

“When we don’t get that information, we’re not able to do our job,” he said. “We’re not able to keep the public safe.”

He said the county has contacted the lab about its reporting practices.

“That’s not a practice that can continue,” he said. “We’ve been getting it (COVID-19 cases) pretty regularly from the labs in Wisconsin that we work with a little more commonly.”

Not all the Birds Eye employees who tested positive live in Walworth County, so their cases will not show up in the county’s daily update, Nevicosi said.

He said Walworth County is aware of seven Birds Eye employees who live in the county and have tested positive.

The latest numbers show 88 laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19, three of which were hospitalized as of Sunday. Of all the cases, 22 people have recovered and 56 are isolating at their primary residences.

After learning of the Birds Eye outbreak, Nevicosi said the county has jumped into contact tracing. Officials have to track down who has been exposed to each person who tested positive so they can share what to do, how to behave and what symptoms to look for, for example.

The county also can work with the company to identify safe ways to operate and perhaps even get more personal protective equipment if it’s needed, he said.

Enforcement of and complaints about infection-control practices go through the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and not the county, he said.

Geneva Lake Manor update

Nevicosi said county officials currently are “satisfied” with how all three facilities have responded to their outbreaks.

There are no other health officer orders other than the one given to Geneva Lake Manor, he said.

The decision to give an order has to do with the nature of the outbreak at a given facility. Nevicosi said Geneva Lake Manor had a higher rate of positive cases per capita.

“We thought that it was a situation that might get beyond that facility’s ability to deal with the outbreak without some additional intervention,” he said.

The statement released by Carriage Healthcare, the management company of Wisconsin Illinois Senior Housing Inc., says the county did not speak with nursing home representatives about the order before issuing it.

A letter dated Sunday from Carriage Healthcare to Erica Bergstrom, the county’s public health officer, asked the county to get “verification before your department makes decisions about our facilities.”

“We were surprised by the order,” Bob Siebel, president/CEO of Carriage, said in the statement, adding that everything in the order was being done in the first weeks of March.

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