Editor’s Note: The video originally included in this article showed scenes from a facility that is not connected with this story. Those scenes have been removed.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Texas health officials combat outbreaks of a COVID-19 in state supporting living centers, reports of the virus’ spread among New Yorkers with developmental disabilities offer a striking picture of what is at stake.
Texas’ state supported living centers, also called SSLCs, house roughly 3,000 medically fragile people with mental disabilities or behavior problems. Texas’ 13 SSLCs have come under fire for being ill prepared to handle the coronavirus pandemic and protect its residents from infection, according to media reports. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s own budget request shows its SSLCs were already struggling, before the pandemic struck, with staffing shortages, building repairs, aging technology and budget constraints.
Local health agencies have confirmed COVID-19 cases in three SSLCs in Denton, Richmond and Mexia. KXAN has received numerous emails from people indicating Austin State Supported Living Center has had cases of the virus, but state and local health officials will not confirm that information.
Outbreaks on the rise
As of April 8, 97 residents and staffers at the Denton facility tested positive for the virus, two cases have been confirmed at Richmond’s SSLC and there has been at least one case at Mexia’s, according to The Texas Tribune.
Infections rates in New York appear much higher.
According to officials and data cited by The New York Times, “1,100 of the 140,000 developmentally disabled people monitored by the state had tested positive for the virus.”
“A study by a large consortium of private service providers found that residents of group homes and similar facilities in New York City and surrounding areas were 5.34 times more likely than the general population to develop Covid-19 and 4.86 times more likely to die from it,” according The Times’ report.
New York state leads the country in COVID-19 cases, with nearly 150,000 as of April 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Texas has had over 10,400 cases and 205 deaths. Nationwide more than 454,000 people have contracted the disease and 16,267 people have died from it, according to state data. The virus is most dangerous for the elderly and those with existing medical conditions.
Beth Mitchell, a senior attorney with Disability Rights Texas, said residents at SSLCs are particularly susceptible to catching the virus. Her organization advocates on behalf of people with disabilities.
“There is no way to do social distancing. There are too many people that live on each particular unit,” Mitchell said of Texas’ SSLCs. “It’s very easily spread, when you don’t know what you’re dealing with.”
She said HHSC should release information on positive tests.
“It’s helpful for the public to know, since they are so closed off right now,” Mitchell said, regarding COVID-19 cases. “They’re so closed off, and nobody can get in or out in terms of visitors or anything else, and, to stop any kind of rumors about who does or doesn’t, it would be very helpful to post those numbers.”
HHSC spokesperson Christine Mann said the agency is “prohibited by law” from releasing information on a confirmed case at an SSLC. Austin Public Health spokesperson Jen Samp said her department would not confirm a case of COVID-19 unless it is part of a “significant outbreak past the ability to contact trace.”
HHSC has clamped down on visitation and access to its SSLC’s, since the pandemic struck. On April 8, men with facemasks were stopping and screening all incoming traffic.
Mann said the agency started screening all staff that had visited, or contacted someone who had visited, high-risk countries identified by the CDC on March 5. Visitation was restricted at SSLCs on March 13, and temperature checks on all staff and essential visitors began March 16, according to an email sent to KXAN.
“On any campus in which a resident tests positive for COVID-19, all staff on the campus wear face masks. Additionally, we’re continuing to educate and train staff on infection control procedures,” Mann said in an email. “Staff working in homes with COVID-19 positive residents are dedicated to those homes only, using the appropriate personal protective equipment and are following all CDC guidelines to protect their safety and prevent spread. This includes masks, face shield masks, N95 masks, gloves, and gowns.”
The state’s SSLCs have faced budget constraints, staffing shortages and structural deficiencies for years, according to HHSC’s 2020-2021 budget request.
The agency has struggled to retain staff for over half a decade. The pandemic, Mitchell said, has exacerbated those problems.
“Annualized turnover at SSLCs has remained above 35 percent since [fiscal year] 2012,” according to the budget. “Direct support professionals at the SSLCs have an annualized turnover rate of 53 percent, and nearly 1 in 5 positions is vacant.”
Technology infrastructure also lags.
“Current IT infrastructure at the SSLCs and state hospitals does not reliably support modern-day health care practice and business processes,” the budget states.
And they need more money.
“State hospitals and SSLCs must receive additional funding, decrease the number of people served, or risk not providing the same level of quality care – which could ultimately jeopardize the state’s agreement with the Department of Justice or impact hospital certification.”
Texas SSLCs have been under a monitoring agreement with the U.S. Justice Department since June 2009. As part of the agreement, independent monitors continue to evaluate each facility and create reports on SSLC operations. The agreement stems from a federal lawsuit against the state for widespread failures to meet minimum standards and obligations to residents.