‘Pilot testing’ to begin for staff at some Austin nursing homes, as COVID-19 cases spread

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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) — Austin Public Health will begin testing workers at “certain” long-term care facilities for COVID-19.

The move comes a week after Cissy Sanders began pressing local and state leaders for more testing in nursing and assisted living homes. Sanders’ mother is a resident at Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

“I said, ‘What if one of your staff is asymptomatic and has brought the virus into the building, and then continues to work and interact with the residents? And you are letting the virus spread?’” Sanders said she asked facility management, after learning about a confirmed case inside the home.

MORE: Families frustrated by lack of testing for vulnerable nursing home residents

Sanders was initially told that only people showing symptoms would be tested.

“I’m not going to watch my mother die because of elected officials’ incompetence. I’m going to push this matter as high as I have to push, in order to get my mother’s nursing home tested,” she told KXAN.

Austin Public Health explained it doesn’t recommend widespread testing for all residents inside these facilities but is instead using isolation measures with every resident.

“The actual test poses a small but real increase of infection to anyone in that room for the next few hours,” a spokesperson for APH said.

APH also said they want to use the “best tests” for nursing home patients, but don’t have enough tests with “rapid turn around that can be done on site at the nursing facility.”

They said they “have appealed to city and state leadership to actively advocate for those tests for our nursing homes.”

But Wednesday afternoon, Sanders got a call from State Representative Gina Hinojosa’s office, letting her know every staffer at her mother’s home would be tested.

“It is my understanding, with conversations with the city and the county, that what will be happening is those staff members will be tested and then based on what is learned from that experience there will be an evaluation — at the local level, not at the state-wide level — of how to proceed with other nursing homes,” Rep. Hinojosa said.

An APH spokesperson said, “Pilot testing is being implemented with health care workers at certain locations.”

Rep. Hinojosa told KXAN Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center would be the first facility where staffers without symptoms would get the test. The facility is one of 10 homes in the Austin area that has confirmed at least one case of COVID-19 to KXAN.

APH later provided KXAN the order signed by Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. The order requires all clinical and non-clinical staff, as well as contractors, who enter the facility from April 17 to the afternoon of April 21 to submit to COVID-19 testing.

A spokesperson said, “In a rapidly evolving situation, the Nursing Home Task Force is working to make sure we can address outbreaks quickly and effectively at locations that house a vulnerable population. Dr. Mark Escott’s Order for the facility listed allows us to gather the data and information that will influence our strategies moving forward.

“I think we need to do more,” Rep. Hinojosa said. “We don’t have those strict standards, strict protocols of what to do when we get a COVID test in a facility, and we don’t have the tests.”

Rep. Hinojosa emphasized how critical it is to prioritize tests not only for nursing home and assisted living facilities, but also for state supported living centers and state hospitals.

“It’s just unacceptable. These are people who have dedicated their lifetimes to these communities, and they are now counting on us to do right by them,” she said.

City Council member Ann Kitchen has been working with Sanders in her push for more testing, as well.

“People living in these facilities are among our most vulnerable. As a daughter, I know we must find a way to protect or mothers and fathers — that’s why testing workers is so critical,” she said.

Kitchen told KXAN she was “relieved” the city was beginning this type of testing.

“We also need to take care of the people who care for our families. We need to help them stay safe, and testing helps them know their risk,” she said.

Rep. Hinojosa said, based on the conversations she’s had with experts, their response hinges on getting more point-of-care tests that produce results faster and on-site.

“Having real time information is critical in making decisions to move forward,” Rep. Hinojosa said.

She said the “patchwork” response to this pandemic across the state, and even the country, was hurting our ability to respond.

“What we see is individual municipalities, local governments, doing what they can to get what they need, and what happens is we are all competing against each other for the tests,” she said.

To her knowledge, just around 200 of the “point-of-care” tests had been distributed across the state. She said that’s why social distancing and other prevention efforts are so important.

Without them, she said, “we are leaving our most vulnerable residents that much more vulnerable.”

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