AUSTIN (KXAN) — Less than half of nursing homes in Austin-Travis County have completed COVID-19 testing for all their residents and staff, according to a new city memo.

The memo from Austin Public Health (APH) stated 32 nursing homes must be tested by Wednesday, May 27, in order to comply with the Gov. Greg Abbott’s testing mandate. So far, 13 of these facilities have completed testing, with APH facilitating at all but one facility.

According to the memo, 12 more nursing homes will be tested with the help of APH, while the remaining seven homes will move forward without APH kits or assistance.

“The hope is that by the end of next week, all of these will be completed.”

Governor Greg Abbott, on testing in nursing homes

The memo was released as an update on the progress made by the APH, in response to a council resolution to dedicate resources and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

APH stated they have conducted two virtual training sessions on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 swabbing, with more than 36 long-term care facilities in attendance. Additionally, APH has trained firefighters to become part of their Mobile Testing Team.

A spokesperson for APH told KXAN, “We are monitoring the testing status every day. We are currently on track to complete testing next week, but we hope to have a better idea of where we stand on completion by early next week.”

KXAN asked Gov. Greg Abbott about whether he thought nursing homes would be able to complete the ordered testing by the deadline.

“It is looking like there are some regions in the state of Texas that will not meet that deadline. Obviously, we want this done as quickly as possible,” Gov. Abbott said. “The hope is that by the end of next week, all of these will be completed.”

The Governor’s testing mandate only applies to nursing facilities, not assisted living facilities or other senior living homes. This week, he released another order calling for testing in state hospitals and state supported living centers.

Stephan’s Story

For many families, this widespread testing and other preventative measures are coming too late.

“For me, it’s month too late,” Delia Satterwhite said. “He’s dead and gone now. No testing is going to bring him back.”

Her brother, Stephan, lived at Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in South Austin.

Delia Satterwhite remembers her brother Stephan Morales smiling and calling her “sis.” (Photo provided by: Delia Satterwhite)

“Sometimes I’d get off work and just pop my head in,” Satterwhite said. “I would try to go every Saturday to see him — take him some tacos or menudo from Joe’s Bakery. I’d sit there and have breakfast with him.”

When the nursing homes stopped taking visitors in mid-March, Satterwhite tried to bring some snacks up to the home for her brother, but the home said they had to refuse. She said she understood — anything to keep them safe.

“Then on April 3, they called me to let me know they were isolating him because he was running a fever,” she said, through tears.

She visited her brother through the window of his room at the home, after he tested positive for COVID-19. Stephan told her he was “tired,” and didn’t want to be taken to the hospital. Satterwhite said nurses at Riverside told her they would begin hospice care.

“Before I left I said, ‘I love you Steve.’ He said, ‘I love you sis,'” she said. “Then a week later they called me, and he had passed away.”

“For me, it’s month too late for testing. He’s dead and gone now. No testing is going to bring him back.”

Delia Satterwhite, lost her brother to COVID-19

Satterwhite said she was left wondering, was locking down the facilities enough? She wonders why tests were not prioritized for nursing home staff and residents then.

“After he passed away I thought to myself, ‘Well what did they do to prevent bringing the virus in to him? Because that’s what happened. Someone brought it in to him. He didn’t go out and get this virus,” she said. “What precautions did they take? I’d like to know.”

Satterwhite said she believes if they would have started widespread testing back in March, her brother would still be alive.

“It makes me mad to know that he got this virus because it was brought in to him,” she said. “I just wish that I could have done more for my brother.”

Clusters in Austin-Travis County

APH has been investigating “clusters” of cases at nursing homes, long-term care facilities and institutional settings since the beginning of the pandemic. They define a cluster as three or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a single location.

In a city council work session on Tuesday, they reported 17 different facilities with clusters.

The memo explained 11 of the facilities with clusters completed the required testing on Wednesday, but that two facilities with clusters were excluded “because they were either a state-run facility or they do not fit the definition of nursing home or assisted living facility.”

APH said they are working with those facilities on what other assistance would be available.

Testing in Williamson County

A spokesperson for Williamson County said only three of the 14 nursing homes in the area had been tested for “cluster investigations.”

KXAN asked how many positive cases had been identified as a result of these tests, but the spokesperson said they won’t release that information.

Testing in Hays County

Meanwhile, Hays County officials completed all testing for their nursing home residents and employees on Friday.

According to a press release from the county, more than 1,000 people across six facilities will receive their test results within 72 hours. The release stated, however, most results were being returned faster — in about 48 hours.

After the Governor ordered testing in all nursing facilities, Hays County assembled a task force consisting of volunteers from the San Marcos Fire Department, Kyle Fire Department, Buda Fire Department, North Hays Fire Rescue, South Hays Fire Department, San Marcos Emergency Management, Hays County Health Department and San Marcos Hays County Emergency Medical Services.

San Marcos Fire Chief Les Stephens explains COVID-19 testing in nursing facilities (Photo provided by: the City of San Marcos)

According to the release, the task force can test up to 100 people per hour.

“What’s so unique and special about this task force is that they all volunteered to help, we didn’t have to require anyone to participate,” said San Marcos Fire Chief Les Stephens. “They all have a selfless spirit and immediately stepped up to assist with this important effort to help protect one of the most vulnerable populations in our communities.”

Director of Public Safety Chase Stapp said they put together a plan in less than one week and carried it out “flawlessly.”

“When we received the orders from the Governor’s Office, we knew it would be a tall order, but I knew that if anyone could make it happen, it would be our amazing professionals from throughout Hays County,” Stapp said.

According to the release, the task force worked with the San Marcos Hays County EMS Medical Director, Dr. Katherine Remick, to develop safe protocols before starting to administer tests on Monday.

The release also stated, “All task force members were required to submit to a COVID-19 test to ensure all team members were negative and not able to spread any infection to those being tested.”

They also reported wearing extensive PPE, including:

  • Tyvek suits
  • disposable medical gowns
  • two layers of medical gloves
  • N95 face masks
  • face shields
  • booties
  • head coverings

“Between every test, one set of gloves and the disposable apron were changed,” the release stated.

Hays County Local Health Department Epidemiologist Eric Schneider said, “The goal of the stringent protective clothing requirements was not only to keep the first responders safe, but to also keep all the residents and facility employees safe as well.”

According to the release, all of the testing is paid by the State directly to a private lab, but the city is eligible for reimbursement for other expenses through the CARES Act.

More progress reported in APH memo

According to the Austin Public Health memo, strike teams have been deployed in six long-term care facilities in Austin-Travis County, as well as the dedicated nursing home isolation facility. Plus, another strike team was set to be deployed on Thursday.

However, six area long-term care facilities declined strike team support, and one facility did not respond.

APH described strike teams as being composed of Registered Nurses, Licensed Vocation Nurses, Certified Nursing Assistants and Emergency Medical Technicians, who can be deployed within 48 to 72 hours.

They have also assembled a Quick Reaction Force, ready to deploy “immediately” in the event of an outbreak at a facility.

According to the memo, all facilities have a “standard process to order their own PPE,” but APH has provided a weekly supply of protective gear to six facilities experiencing outbreaks. The dedicated nursing home isolation facility also receives these supplemental supplies.

APH also plans to give a “onetime supplemental PPE pack” to all long-term care facilities by May 25.