Nearly 50 deaths reported as a result of COVID-19 in Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities

Investigations

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) — More than 13% of Texas nursing homes have at least one resident or staff member diagnosed with COVID-19, but the Texas Health and Human Services Commission will not release the locations of facilities where the virus has been reported.

On March 31, KXAN Investigators asked for a list of facilities that had confirmed a positive virus test. A spokesperson for HHSC said information on cases at specific nursing homes was protected by state law.

Now, HHSC is reporting at least 47 deaths related to COVID-19 in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

KXAN asked HHSC for specific numbers of individuals in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that have been tested for the virus. A spokesperson said neither HHSC nor the Department of State Health Services have that data. HHSC has not confirmed, yet, if the agency tracks hospitalizations from the facilities.

HHSC did confirm 162 nursing homes, out of 1,222 total in the state, had reported at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. In addition, there have been cases discovered at 33 of the state’s 2,002 assisted living facilities.

The state will not publish the total number of coronavirus infections in specific facilities, or identify which facilities have reported cases.

“In compliance with patient, resident and employee personal health privacy laws, we cannot provide more detailed information,” a spokesperson for HHSC said.

Fear of ‘the unknown’

Austin-based clinical psychologist Dr. Mara Karpel works primarily with older adults & caregivers.

“I’m always giving everybody else advice about how to deal with stress. I know stress can lower your immune system and it’s important to keep that under control,” she said. “But when you get a call like that, it’s very frightening.” 

Karpel’s mom is in a nursing home in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in America. Right now, she has a low-grade fever.

“So, the biggest fear is that she has it, and she’ll get worse,” she said. “And that we won’t be there to hold her hand.”

Karpel said it was a fight just to get the facility her mom lives in to perform a test for COVID-19.

“There are many more cases than what they are reporting, and part of that is because of the lack of testing,” she said.

Her mom was eventually able to get tested, and they are waiting on the results. She said she knows the lack of information is stressful for families of residents at Texas homes, as well.

“The unknown is what causes more stress for people.”

Dr. Mara Karpel, clinical psychologist

Karpel said she’s trying to take her own advice to keep her stress levels low.

“It affects your immune system,” she said. “We need that right now more than ever.”

She said stress can also affect people’s heart health and gastrointestinal system.

“But if we find a way to bring on a ‘relaxation response’ where our breath is deeper and slower, and our heart rate is slower, then we can’t feel stress at the same time” she said.

She said ways to initiate a relaxation response include:

  • Getting outside
  • Meditating
  • Deep breathing
  • Staying connected with people

She especially urges people to call family members who live in long term care facilities because feelings of isolation can increase a person’s stress levels.

Hearing residents’ concerns

Alexa Schoeman runs the state’s Office of Long-Term Care Ombudsman, who help residents in these homes express concerns and file complaints.

“The 13 percent was certainly a shocking number, and we can expect to see it grow,” Schoeman said. “It’s so tough in facilities because people are isolated together.”

She said they have an ombudsman staff member assigned to every facility in the state, and they are still connecting with residents over the phone or virtually.

“They’re the ones that really know these residents, and have have been reaching out and speaking to them,” she said. “The residents are frightened.” 

Schoeman said that fear can be compounded when there’s a lack of information. Plus, the isolation many residents are feeling can be especially difficult.

They encourage any resident with concerns to call 1-800-252-2412 to speak with a local Ombudsman.

KXAN has been following the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes for weeks, after receiving numerous emails from concerned family members and staff members at facilities with the virus. Nine Austin-area facilities have voluntarily confirmed cases of the disease at their facilities, and you can explore those facilities in the interactive map below.

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