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Texas Nursing Home Infections, Deaths Highest in Houston

The information, which the state Health and Human Services Commission previously declined to make public, allows family members to see how many coronavirus cases have spread in facilities where their relatives live.

by Emily Foxhall , Jordan Rubio and John Tedesco, Houston Chronicle / July 29, 2020
AP
 
(TNS) - At one Houston-area nursing home, at least 117 residents had been infected with the new coronavirus. At another, at least 20 residents who had tested positive had died. At a third, 86 residents were simultaneously sick.
 
These snapshots emerged from new data released Monday by the state showing how many residents and staff had been infected with the coronavirus in individual nursing homes and assisted living facilities — data that marks a significant step toward increased transparency that advocates and relatives have long called for.
 
The information, which the state Health and Human Services Commission previously declined to make public, allows family members to see how many coronavirus cases have spread in facilities where their relatives live, and gives the public a more detailed picture of how outbreaks are spreading among a vulnerable population.
 
Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said she was glad to see the numbers released — though she believed it should have happened sooner.
 
“Families need to be able to look and determine whether a living situation is right for their loved ones,” Shannon said. “Not only that, we the public need to know where these outbreaks are occurring around the state."
 
The data shows that Houston has the highest average rate of residents who have been infected and who have died in the state, according to the numbers released Monday, which will be updated every weekday. On average, about 17 residents per facility have been sickened by the virus, and 2 residents have died per facility.
 
The Texas Health and Human Service Commission, which regulates long-term care facilities, in May declined to release records on specific outbreaks at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, arguing that health privacy laws prohibited it.
 
A federal agency in June did publish such data about individual nursing homes, though it was in some cases inaccurate or incomplete. But the state continued to release only total regional facility case counts — until the state attorney general on July 6 ruled that privacy laws didn’t prevent the release of the more detailed set of data.
 
Not knowing how many cases a facility had was long a source of angst for people trying to figure out where to get care, or whether they should move, said Greg Shelley, program manager of the Harris County Long-term Care Ombudsman Program at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth.
 
Facilities were supposed to update family members about coronavirus cases, but some didn’t feel staff were being honest, and the public typically had no way of knowing about outbreaks.
 
“Now everybody has access to the same information, which is a big sigh of relief,” Shelley said, adding, “I think it’s going to help quell a lot of anxiety.”
 
Among those glad to see the information made public was Susan Lederer Russell, whose 96-year-old mother lives in an assisted living facility in the Memorial area. The state data would allow Russell to check the information her mom’s facility sent her, she said — which was especially important to her since she couldn’t visit.
 
“Not having the facts available, that doesn’t do anybody any good,” Russell said. “All you can do is worry and go to the worst place when you don’t know… It brings you comfort if you find out that your loved one is in a facility that the numbers indicate they’re being careful.”
 
There had been 1,100 COVID-19 cases among residents at Houston-area nursing homes, more than 350 more than the next highest city, San Antonio, according to the data, which was current as of July 13. And 148 residents died from the virus here, compared with 57 deaths in the next highest city, Fort Worth.
 
The Greater Houston region had seen 2,301 COVID-19 cases among residents at nursing homes, according to the state’s data. There had been 253 resident deaths.
 
Afton Oaks Nursing Center in southeast Houston had the highest number of infected residents reported in the state, with 117 sickened. They could not immediately be reached for comment. Focused Care at Westwood in the Alief area had the most reported deaths locally.
 
The Focused Care facility now has only two positive cases, but four more had died since March 23 in addition to the 20 the state reported, spokesperson Rebecca Reid wrote in an email. She added that while the residents tested positive for the virus, they couldn’t confirm that the virus was the cause of their death.
 
The facility with the highest number of active coronavirus cases in Texas was the Medical Resort at Pearland, which reported 86 infected residents.
 
But there's a reason for those high numbers, said Kara Garman, the resort's executive director. The facility has a contract with the state of Texas solely to accept residents who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
 
“So many nursing homes don't do COVID at all,” Garman said. “(Residents) need somewhere to go. We have people coming from all over Texas.”
 
The Pearland nursing home reported fewer resident deaths than many other nursing homes — a total of three. And so far, Garman said only two employees at the resort had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, a far lower number than many other facilities.
 
Garman said she was one of the employees who got sick — she was out for three weeks in June and still hasn't regained her sense of taste or smell. She doubts she was infected at the nursing home itself.
 
"We hit the ground running and really took all the precautions with (personal protective equipment), really being on top of those screenings, and using hand sanitizer throughout the day," she said.
 
Emily Foxhall is the Texas Storyteller for the Houston Chronicle. Read her on our free site, chron.com, and on our subscriber site, HoustonChronicle.com. | emily.foxhall@chron.com | Twitter: emfoxhall
 
emily.foxhall@chron.com
 
jordan.rubio@chron.com
 
john.tedesco.@chron.com
 
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