AUSTIN (KXAN) – If times weren’t hard enough for nursing and assisted living facilities in Central Texas, the most severe winter weather in living memory is throwing another obstacle–power outage–at these homes for the most vulnerable.
KXAN has confirmed one assisted living facility has been in a power outage, and we have received messages from families of another local nursing home indicating it lost power within the past couple days.
Heather Hunter, a spokesperson for long-term care provider Brookdale, confirmed its assisted living and memory care location in Northwest Hills is part of numerous power outages throughout Austin.
Hunter said Brookdale has been communicating with the utility company, and they are working to restore power.
“We remain focused on the safety and comfort of residents and our associates who care for them. Based on the assessments of our team, the community has reported to be doing well and continues providing services and caring for the residents,” Hunter said in an email. “We have a storm preparedness plan in place and our community is equipped with water, food, a generator and supplies to care for residents.”
State rules require long-term care facilities to have emergency plans in place and to evaluate those plans annually, according to HHSC. The emergency plans should outline a method to communicate with outside entities during an emergency and monitor news news and information.
“A facility’s plan must have a section for sheltering arrangements that includes procedures for implementing a decision to shelter-in-place that includes having access to medications, records, food, water, equipment and supplies,” according to HHSC’s manual.
Facilities should have an emergency staffing plan and have a record of all vital services–such as dialysis, oxygen or respirators—and plans to keep those services available during an emergency.
You can find a copy of the state’s guide for emergency preparations here.
Families for Better Care Executive Director Brian Lee advocates for elderly Texans living in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities.
He told KXAN that keeping the power on in these homes was a matter of “life and death,” referencing a nursing home where 12 people died in 2017, following a power outage during Hurricane Irma.
“Nursing homes and assisted living have got to be at the top of the list as far as power restoration, and the rolling blackouts that are occurring should not be affecting them,” he said. “We’re talking about medically compromised individuals, elderly, very vulnerable. Anything that disrupts their care services could result in people dying.”
He’s referring to the “rotating outages” called for by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. The council manages the state’s electrical grid, according to Austin Energy. KXAN has heard reports these planned outages have lasted for hours for some Texans.
ERCOT has declared an Energy Emergency Alert (EEA), which it can do if there aren’t enough power reserves. Rotating outages are a “last resort,” according to Austin Energy. You can find out more about the outages from Austin Energy here and from ERCOT here.
A spokesperson for Austin Energy told KXAN they make “every effort” not to include customers on their critical load customers — a list of three tiers of locations given priority during the rolling outages. Nursing homes are included in the second tier.
“Because of the level of request, Tier 2 facilities were not excluded from this event,” the spokesperson said. “We hope nursing homes enact the emergency plans developed to assist residents during crisis situations.”
They noted that Austin Homeland Security and Emergency Management was also available to provide assistance to nursing homes in crisis.
Lee argued the state of Texas and power companies should reevaluate how nursing homes are prioritized.
“If the power companies don’t have them prioritized, people dying could rest with them.”
COVID-19 cases ebb in nursing facilities
Aside from severe weather, Texas long-term care facilities have been battered by COVID-19. Over 8,600 nursing home residents have died of the virus.
But data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission shows the recent vaccine rollout has improved the situation. Active cases of coronavirus are finally ebbing for the first time since October, and the state’s data shows a sustained decline in cases since December.
“Just because we have one big problem that’s hitting us, doesn’t mean we won’t be hit with something else,” Lee said of the storm and the pandemic. “I think that is what these plans are supposed to take into account.”