Correction: This story was updated on May 5, 2020, to reflect that one of the Peoria County nursing homes with a COVID-19 outbreak was originally misidentified in this story. It is Sharon Healthcare Willows.


PEORIA With his 84-year old mother quarantined at a nursing home battling a COVID-19 outbreak, Scott Johnson is most concerned about the lost time.


Rosemary Johnson suffers from dementia, a degenerative disease that makes every day precious.


"I am missing out on time with my mom, and if something happens to her, then I can't get that time back," he said.


Before visitors were banned in mid-March, Johnson saw his mother at Generations Peoria about three times a week. He often took his dog, Shadow, a great ambassador who helped his mother make friends after moving to Generations in December. On the day the Illinois Department of Public Health banned all visitors at nursing homes, Johnson was there.


"I had to leave that day and was very frustrated because at that time it was all new," he said. "I have established a routine of calling her and letting her know what has been going on out here in the world, and to let her know why I am not able to visit or bring the dog. On the 20th was her birthday and I called to wish her a happy birthday, and let the nursing home know it was her birthday. In a different world we would have picked her up and taken her somewhere."


Johnson understands why visitors have been banned, and he’s all for that if it helps keep his mom safe. But even with a strict quarantine, COVID-19 has made its way into Generations Peoria. On Monday, a spokesperson confirmed there were 12 cases, six staff members and six residents. By Saturday, the IDPH website showed that the facility had 15 cases. On Wednesday night, a resident of Generations Peoria died of COVID-19.


Johnson doesn’t blame the nursing home for what’s happening. All nursing homes are in a difficult situation when it comes to COVID-19, he said. But he does wonder why more testing isn’t happening there. A rigorous routine of testing would catch undetected cases of COVID-19 in staff members who might be bringing the virus into the facility. He suggested starting with baseline testing of everyone, and requiring staff to test regularly. If this type of preventative testing were happening, Johnson would feel better about not being able to visit his mother.


"I want to see my mom, but I don’t want to put her in danger," he said. "As long as what we are doing protects her, everything is going to be OK. But if what we are doing isn’t working, if we are just going to write it off, then let me see my mom, and whatever happens, happens."


So far COVID-19 testing in long-term care facilities has been sparse, but that’s poised to change. Local health care organizations are joining forces to equip and teach nursing home staff how to test their residents, said Monica Hendrickson, administrator of the Peoria City/County Public Health Department.


"Heartland Health Services, OSF HealthCare, UnityPoint Health, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria have all designated staff to do the training and education," said Hendrickson. "They’ve created the curriculum, now it’s really about getting supplies to those entities. And so we’ve put out a request for over 1,000 test kits, the first request, and hopefully we can get some in here."


As part of the program, the staff at long-term care facilities will get tested at Peoria’s drive thru testing sites. Residents will be tested in-house so they don’t have to break quarantine.


"The goal is to train existing staff in the nursing homes. Our nursing homes do a fair bit of critical care already," said Hendrickson. "They know their clients, and their clients' needs … they are subject-matter experts."


There is also a statewide initiative to do mass testing in long-term care facilities without known COVID-19 outbreaks, a proactive approach to address vulnerable populations in congregate living settings where the virus can quickly spread.


"It’s really focused on the fact that we are seeing a lot of asymptomatic folks, people with very mild symptoms, who really aren’t showing many symptoms at all, and they are the ones that we are really seeing a lot of transmission in," said Hendrickson.


Gov. JB Pritzker talked about the initiative during his daily press briefing on April 20.


"Testing at non-COVID facilities will allow us to identify early the presence of COVID-19 in a facility and isolate those cases before widespread transmission," he said.


The Illinois National Guard and the Illinois Department of Transportation are participating in these strike teams, which have already begun testing in populations more likely to become severely ill or die from COVID-19 — black and brown communities have seen disproportionately high death rates in Illinois.


While the strike teams may eventually visit long-term care facilities in central Illinois, the need here isn’t as great, said Hendrickson.


"While the numbers (of positive cases) are growing, (the long-term care facilities) are actually managing it really well," she said. "We’ve been in contact with the IDPH, but right now having a strike team isn’t going to necessarily provide them with any additional support, because they have actually been doing the due diligence that’s been required."


In spite of strict quarantines and mandated health checks of both staff and residents, COVID-19 is creeping into long-term care facilities all over the state. In the Tri-County area Generations of Peoria is one of four area nursing homes with confirmed cases. Bickford Senior Living, Lutheran Hillside Village, Sharon Healthcare Willows, and Generations Riverview in East Peoria all have COVID-19 outbreaks, according to information on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website.


But just because a nursing home doesn’t show up on the IDPH website doesn’t mean there are no confirmed cases. The IDPH reports only nursing homes with two or more cases, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.


That’s why Kewanee Care Center, where a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-April, is not showing up on the IDPH website, which currently lists no COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Henry County.


"We haven’t had any further spread in the facility," said Greg Wilson, senior vice-president of operations for Petersen Health Care, the parent company of Kewanee Care Center.


About two weeks ago, Kewanee resident Virginia Pratt opened a letter from Kewanee Care Center, where her husband is a resident, and learned of the positive test. Frantic questions immediately ran through her head. Perhaps most concerning is the fear that staff won’t know if her husband is sick. A stroke left him unable to recognize when he is ill, so he wouldn’t tell his caregivers if he was having symptoms.


"I am usually the first person to realize something is off with him, and I am used to being the one to take care of him if he does get sick or has an injury," said Pratt. "It scares me that I won't be allowed to do that if he would ever get COVID-19."


Since the initial notification, Pratt has received more information from the facility, and a phone call from a social worker who is keeping her up-to-date on the situation.


"They will now be calling me every week to let me know about testing results because they have started testing people," said Pratt. "As of Friday, employees had been tested, with six of those tests being negative, and they had tested six residents. They were still waiting for the result of one of those tests. Other results were back, and they were all negative."


The information has been reassuring to Pratt.


"I feel better that they are actually doing testing."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 309-686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken