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National Guard training as CNAs for SNF to open up hospital beds during COVID-19 surge

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  — Members of the Wisconsin National Guard will be trained as Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) to take care of post-acute care patients who have been transferred to nursing homes as a way to open up hospital beds.

Omicron is now the dominant variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and there has been a 70 percent increase in cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks, with children under the age of 18 representing the highest number of cases, said Governor Tony Evers during a media briefing January 13.

People who are in need of emergency care cannot get the medical attention they need because the hospitals have so many COVID-19 patients, he said.

Through an agreement with Madison College, 200 National Guard members will be trained as CNAs to help alleviate the pressure on hospitals, Governor Evers said.

The Wisconsin National Guard has already placed 50 CNAs at skilled nursing facilities to take care of patients, which will open up 78 post-acute care beds in hospitals around the state, said Karen Timberlake, secretary designee of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

“The risk to communities has never been more dire,” she said.

There were more than 13,000 new cases of COVID-19 as of January 13, with the seven-day average being 9,915 cases, Timberlake said.

All together, 10,434 Wisconsin residents have died of COVID-19, she said.

The healthcare systems in Wisconsin are under pressure because of the surge in COVID-19 cases, with 95 percent of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds statewide being occupied and 95 percent of the intermediate care beds being occupied, Timberlake said.

As of January 12, there were 2,278 people hospitalized with COVID-19, which included 276 in the past week, with 488 people in ICU beds, she said.

Those who are not vaccinated continue to make up the vast majority of those who are hospitalized with COVID-19, and Governor Evers and Timberlake encouraged those who have not yet been vaccinated to make an appointment for a vaccine.

Governor Evers and Timberlake also encouraged everyone to do what they can to prevent the spread of the virus: wear a mask; frequently wash your hands; stay home if you feel sick; maintain physical distance from others; get tested if you have symptoms; follow your school’s quarantine guidelines.

If everyone does what they can, that will protect their own health, the health of their family members, friends and neighbors, and the health of healthcare workers, teachers, school staff and students, Timberlake said.


As of January 15, insurance companies will be required to cover the cost of at-home tests, Governor Evers said.

Do not go to the emergency room for a COVID test, he said, noting that hospitals are already overwhelmed.

At home COVID-19 tests can be requested by dialing 211 and also can be purchased over-the-counter at pharmacies. The DHS website has options as well for obtaining at-home tests, Governor Evers said.

Everyone should do all that they can to protect themselves and others from contracting the coronavirus, Timberlake reiterated.

Testing in schools

One reporter from the Wisconsin Examiner asked about the situation with testing availability in schools.

In Wisconsin, 78 percent of the public school districts are participating in the DHS testing program, and 20 percent of private schools are participating, Timberlake said.

DHS is working with a wide variety of vendors, so some are using PCR tests and some are doing antigen testing, she said, noting that the federal government also is working to increase the supply of antigen tests.

So far in January, 26,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed in schools around the state, Timberlake said.

Funeral homes

A reporter from the Racine County Eye asked about backlogs in funeral homes and in morgues because of the COVID-19 death rate.

So far, there has not been a dramatic increase in deaths, Timberlake said.

The death rate has been consistent, she said, adding that she has not seen any information about funeral homes or morgues being overwhelmed.

The vaccines are highly protective against dying from COVID-19, and “we hope to see a leveling of the death rate,” Timberlake said.


A reporter from Wisconsin Business asked whether more FEMA workers would be coming to Wisconsin.

Governor Evers said he will continue to press the issue about getting more teams of Federal Emergency Management Agency healthcare workers to Wisconsin.

The group in Green Bay “are doing a great job,” he said, adding that he expects the federal government will come through with more FEMA workers to help the hospitals in the state.


A reporter from Fox 6 in Milwaukee asked where the National Guard CNAs would be deployed and whether any of them would be deployed in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee and southeastern Wisconsin will be getting some of the National Guard CNAs, but Governor Evers said he did not have exact numbers for specific locations.

The National Guard CNAs will be deployed at six sites all around Wisconsin to help provide relief for hospitals across the state, Timberlake said.

The state also continues to contract with staffing agencies to help provide personnel to hospitals around the state, she said.


A reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that healthcare workers are suffering burn-out from taking care of COVID-19 patients and asked about long-term staffing solutions.

Wisconsin will continue to work with the National Guard as long as possible and will continue to work with the federal government, Governor Evers said.

In the last state budget, additional resources were included for nurse educators, for those who are in higher education who are educating new nurses, he said.

The state will continue to provide resources to keep educating new nurses, Governor Evers said.


A reporter from Wisconsin Health News asked who would be paying the cost for the CNA training for National Guard members.

The state of Wisconsin and the National Guard will be covering the cost, Governor Evers said.

About one-third of Wisconsin’s National Guard members had been serving in the Middle East and have just arrived home, he said.

Governor Evers said he “welcomed them off the plane and then encouraged them to do the CNA training.”


A reporter from TMJ4 out of Milwaukee and another from WISN TV out of Milwaukee asked how many National Guard members would be in the CNA training program and what the training program would entail.

The initial plan is to have 200 National Guard members trained as CNAs, and they will be deployed by the end of February, Governor Evers said.

Currently, 50 National Guard members are placed at Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNF) across the state, Timberlake said.

Those CNAs already in place already had CNA training or took a “temporary” training course, she said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, accelerated training has been available for CNAs that involves a shorter term online course and then in-person training, Timberland said.

With the shorter term training, people can work in a skilled nursing facility under the supervision of a registered nurse and certain other healthcare professionals, she said.

Those who take the shorter term training, which is a 16-hour training course, can also then continue on later to complete the longer course of study to obtain their certification, Timberlake said.

The shorter term training for CNAs will help hospitals have more places to discharge people who still need care, she said.

Madison College is offering the intensive 16-hour course and the full CNA course, Timberlake said.

Test delays

A reporter from WJMC in Rice Lake asked about the turn-around time for COVID-19 tests.

Most labs are able to have test results within 24 to 72 hours, Timberlake said, noting that turn-around time for tests has always been one to three days during the pandemic.

Turn-around time is a matter of volume, and DHS continues to find more testing providers and has been signing up additional pharmacies, clinics and public health departments to do testing, she said.

If someone thinks he or she might have COVID, that person should be tested and then “act like you have COVID” by wearing masks around others and staying home in isolation, Timberlake said, adding that she knows waiting for testing results “is challenging” but that people must do what they can to keep themselves and others safe.

N95 masks

A reporter from Milwaukee Public Radio asked what the state is doing to boost the availability of N95 masks or KN95 masks.

Organizations can request the masks through the Department of Health Services, Timberlake said.

Organizations that need N95 masks could also contact their local public health department or emergency management agency because “they have alternative sourcing,” she said.

At-home tests

A reporter from Fox 11 out of Green Bay asked about the accuracy of at-home tests and whether those can be used to determine if people can go back to work or back to school.

At-home tests can provide a rapid result useful for determining whether someone should participate in a group gathering, said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer, DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

People should not use the at-home tests to determine whether they can return to work or school, he said.

A better solution is using tests that are monitored through tele-health so that the proper sampling techniques are used and there is the proper interpretation of test results, or PCR tests or antigen tests administered at a facility, Dr. Westergaard said.

Field hospital 

A reporter from the Associated Press asked whether the state planned to open a field hospital again like the one that had been located in State Fair Park.

The problem now is that hospitals need “human capacity” and not additional physical infrastructure, Timberlake said.

Conversations with health systems across the state have shown that it is better to have a regional strategy where people can receive care close to home, and that’s why the state will continue to contract with staffing agencies and will continue to work with the National Guard, she said.


A reporter for WSAW out of Wausau asked whether there was a lack of over-the-counter remedies for colds and flu, whether those remedies could be used to treat mild COVID cases at home and whether pharmacies were limiting the amount of OTC medicine people can purchase.

Dr. Westergaard said he was not aware of a shortage of OTC medications for cold and influenza.

A mild case of COVID-19 would be similar to a cold or having the flu, so over-the-counter medications would be appropriate to use, he said.

Anti-viral medications that require a prescription for those who are at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 are currently in short supply, Dr. Westergaard said.

Under 3

A reporter from PBS Wisconsin asked about COVID-19 testing for children under the age of 3 and noted that CVS and Walgreens will not test children under 3 and that the age group is too young for testing at school.

Testing is recommended for people with COVID symptoms, and if children who are too young for other testing sites have symptoms, people should contact their pediatrician to find testing resources in their community, Dr. Westergaard said.

If one member of the family has symptoms and is confirmed to have COVID-19 and other members of the family develop symptoms, they are considered a “probable case,” he said.

Under those circumstances where one person tests positive for COVID in a household and other members with symptoms are considered probable cases, not everyone has to be tested for COVID-19, Dr. Westergaard said.

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