AUSTIN (KXAN) – State health officials confirmed 14 group homes in Texas have had cases of COVID-19.

Though the virus has hit just a fraction of the state’s 2,936 group homes, it is having a widespread impact on facilities’ ability to stay open.

Group homes provide care for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The homes are often located in residential neighborhoods, house fewer than half a dozen people and are funded through Medicaid. The Texas Health and Human Services regulates the homes, and the agency confirmed Thursday 14 homes reported at least one case of the virus in residents or staff.

HHSC would not release exact locations or the number of infections or deaths related to group homes.

In addition to group homes, COVID-19 cases have surged at nursing homes throughout the state. Several state-supported living centers have had cases. These centers are larger state-operated facilities for medically fragile people with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.

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HHSC regulates both nursing homes and state supported living centers.

Doug Svien is the CEO of The Company of Rock House, a group home operator with about 100 locations in Texas, including over a dozen in Williamson County. He said the virus has caused staffing shortages and pushed many families to remove relatives from homes.

Texas group homes, like this one in Cleburne, blend into residential neighborhoods throughout the state. (photo courtesy Doug Svien)

“I would be surprised if, across the state of Texas, it isn’t somewhere around five to 10% of the people went home to mom and dad out of fear or concern,” said Svien, who added that his company has closed six locations due to COVID-19.

The homes Svien operates are small, typically housing four to six people with disabilities like autism or cerebral palsy. Small shifts in one home’s population can quickly strain operations.

“Do I have enough staff today? If you have three people go home from a house, you have one person living there. Can I temporarily move them to another house? Well, the rules don’t let you do that. Can’t get waivers on some things.”

Svien, who is also the president of the Provider Alliance for Community Services and mayor of Stephenville about 60 miles southwest of Fort Worth, said it can be difficult to teach group home residents about social distancing and hygiene measures that are critical to stopping the virus’ spread.

There have been nearly 650,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. including over 16,000 in Texas and 977 in Travis County, according to the City of Austin’s tracking website.

“Some of our folks don’t even understand what COVID is,” Svien said. “We have to do [education] through role-playing. We have to do it through games. We have to do it constantly re-iterating … It is difficult, but they deserve to be protected just like you and I do.”

Advocacy organizations, like Disability Rights Texas, have seen these service issues coming.

In an April 2 letter to HHSC, Disability Rights requested the state take emergency action to ensure the program governing group homes would be able to address staffing shortages, access to care issues and additional services that may be necessary during the ongoing crisis.

Disability Rights asked the state for a list of temporary changes to address shortfalls due to the virus, including increased payment rates, modifying the scope of health services, allowing telephonic staff training, among many others.

“Unless addressed, this problem could potentially impact tens of thousands of Texans with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD),” according to Disability Rights’ letter. “Once a person with IDD becomes COVID-19 positive, the protocols for staying safe such as isolation and social distancing are more problematic and challenging to enforce.”

Susan Murphree with Disability Rights said the state has “modified some of the training requirements and certification requirements for people to come in and provide direct supports in the facility and some of that happened in the group homes, but it could go further.”

Murphree said it is simply tough for individuals in group homes, who are used to certain daily activities, to deal with changes or to go without services they may need.

“It is quite a change for the individuals in the group homes, who are used to engaging in their communities and, you know, really benefit a lot of times from structured activities,” she said.

Nursing homes and state-supported living centers confront COVID-19

Texas nursing homes have been slammed with COVID-19 cases.

HHSC confirmed 211 nursing homes in the state have had at least one case, which is more than 17% of all nursing homes. The state’s 98 nursing-home-related deaths comprise nearly a quarter of all deaths in the Texas from the virus. In addition, there have been 59 assisted living facilities with cases, which is 2.9% of all such locations.

While HHSC will not release specific nursing homes with cases, KXAN has independently confirmed 10 Austin-area locations that have had COVID-19. You can view those locations, and all of KXAN’s nursing home reporting, here.

State-supported living centers, which are also regulated by HHSC, have had numerous cases. Texas operates 13 SSLCs, and cases have been confirmed in Denton (97), Richmond (2), and Mexia (1), according to local mental health authorities and media reports.

KXAN received several emails saying residents at Austin’s SSLC had the virus, but HHSC has declined to confirm that information. An HHSC spokesperson said the agency is “prohibited by law” from releasing that level of health data.