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) — There have been COVID-19 outbreaks at eight nursing home or assisted living facilities in the Austin area, Austin Public Health Interim Authority Dr. Mark Escott said in a press conference Wednesday.
There have been at least 16 deaths – 15 residents and one staff member – linked to these outbreaks, Dr. Escott said. In total, 96 residents and 67 staff have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Describing these outbreaks as “sizable,” Dr. Escott gave an example of one facility that has more than 35 residents and a number of staff that are sick.
“Once COVID-19 gets into a a facility it’s becoming very difficult to control it at that stage,” he said.
Dr. Escott gave an update on an enhanced order intended to further protect residents and staff at these facilities.
New elements of the order include: facilities must notify patients, their family and staff any time there is a case at that facility; facilities will be restricted from receiving new or returning patients until the outbreak is under control; and nursing home “strike teams” will be established to add personnel to help struggling facilities.
“Not only are patients or residents getting sick, but also staff are getting sick and that means staffing shortages are mixed with increasing populations in these facilities of patients that have more needs,” Dr. Escott explained.
He explained that staff often work at multiple facilities, which could lead to the spread of the virus.
“We are certainly discouraging working at different facilities,” he said. “But quite honestly, there is some concern that if we completely restrict the ability to work at multiple facilities, we will not have enough staff to staff facilities.”
He said that’s why they’ve requested four strike teams from the state to help “fill in the gaps.” The teams would be comprised of clinical and medical staff, but also maintenance and kitchen staff.
“So we don’t have a domino effect into other facilities,” he said.
He added that staffing issues and the potential for a virus to spread in these facilities are a “crisis” that has been “going on long before COVID-19 showed up.”
When asked which of the eight facilities with outbreaks would receive the resources from the strike teams, Dr. Escott said, “we are prioritizing those with the largest outbreaks at this stage.”
He said they will not be releasing which long-term care facilities have the largest outbreaks and would be prioritized, despite increasing calls for transparency.
Dr. Escott also provided an update on how long the public can expect consequences of the coronavirus pandemic to last.
Events that “substantially increase” the risk of spread, such as live sports and festivals, will be “very difficult to have” over the next six months or year, he said.
Factors that will mitigate the threat of the virus and contribute to reopening decisions include the rate of positive tests dropping below 10%, availability of PPE, ability to effectively contract trace, healthcare capacity and how well society can “cocoon” higher risk people, according to Dr. Escott.
He added that those higher risk people will face more stringent advice than the rest of the community when the reopening process does begin.
In the meantime, the “baseline expectation” should be that the concepts of social distancing, personal hygiene and covering of faces in public should continue until herd immunity is reached, he said.
This would primarily come through a vaccination, though that is unlikely to be available for at least a year.