Texas is testing everyone in nursing homes for coronavirus, but not state-run homes for people with disabilities

Texas Tribune

The facilities are still only testing residents and patients who are symptomatic or were potentially exposed to the virus, despite concerns raised by employees and family members about outbreaks.

Texas officials cite medical privacy laws in refusing to disclose cases of COVID-19 among staff and residents in state supported living centers. Photo credit: Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune

Texas is testing everyone in nursing homes for coronavirus, but not state-run homes for people with disabilities” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Last week, Texas announced it would be testing every resident and staff member in nursing homes, which have emerged as hot spots for the new coronavirus. But state-run homes for people with disabilities and state-run psychiatric hospitals — which collectively serve 4,703 vulnerable Texans and employ 18,873 full-time staff members — will not receive that same level of state support to test all residents, patients and employees, according to a spokesperson for the agency that oversees the facilities.

The facilities at this time are still only testing residents and patients who are symptomatic or have potentially been exposed, despite concerns raised by employees and family members about outbreaks.

“Working with local health departments, the Department of State Health Services, and following CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, we test every resident/patient who shows possible symptoms of COVID-19 or has potential exposure to COVID-19,” Christine Mann, spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said in an email. “At this time, more individuals at state hospitals and state supported living centers have recovered from COVID-19 than have active infections.”

As of Sunday, there were 159 total positive cases among residents and patients, with 98 having recovered, according to new data the agency started releasing on state supported living centers and state hospitals earlier this month. “Fewer than 10” residents and patients have died due to complications related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the state reported.

That data does not account for staff members who fall ill, and the state is still not releasing the names of facilities with coronavirus cases, leaving many family members in the dark about their loved ones. Eight of the 23 facilities have at least one positive patient or resident, according to the data. Local health authorities in Denton County stand out as the lone agency providing daily updates on the outbreak at the Denton home, reporting 55 cases among residents and 64 among staff, as of Sunday.

Similar to nursing homes, residents and patients at state-run homes and psychiatric hospitals live in close quarters and interact closely with the staff who care for them. The 10 state psychiatric hospitals serve Texans with mental health issues. Across the 13 state supported living centers, which house people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, about 43% of the residents are medically fragile. Family members worry about rapid spread there, because depending on the severity of their disabilities, residents may not understand rules about hand-washing or maintaining a safe distance from others.

Citing a need to protect the state’s “vulnerable populations,” state officials have clamped down on nursing homes, launching mass testing and reporting new levels of data showing the scope of the virus. On Friday, less than a week after Gov. Greg Abbott directed state officials to test all residents and staff members in Texas nursing homes, the Texas Department of State Health Services released, for the first time, the total number of residents who have tested positive. Among the 311 nursing homes with positive cases, 3,011 residents have tested positive and 490 have died. Another 494 residents have recovered, according to the data. The state is still not providing information about how many cases are at individual nursing homes.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which previously refused to disclose comprehensive data on the number of cases among staff and residents at state supported living centers, is now providing twice-weekly updates on the number of cases at those facilities and in state hospitals.

In April, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers sent Abbott a letter asking for greater transparency in reporting and mandatory testing for everyone in state supported living centers and state hospitals, in addition to nursing homes.

“While media outlets have rightly focused on the deaths in nursing homes across the country, people with disabilities and older adults face increased risks in all institutional and congregate settings,” wrote state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, who authored the letter. “Like nursing homes, there have been similar outbreaks and deaths in our state supported living centers, state hospitals, and group homes. Our state government can and must do more to protect our most vulnerable Texans.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/05/18/texas-coronavirus-testing-disabilities/.

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