Reopening plan for Texas nursing homes on hold after surge in coronavirus cases

Nursing Home Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mary Nichols hasn’t seen her mother in-person for 126 days.

“We anticipated it to be 10 days, two weeks, while they figured this out. Because it was a new disease and something nobody had dealt with before,” Nichols said. “All of us in the beginning were fairly accepting.”

Mary Nichols snapped this photo of her mom sitting outside of her Texas nursing home, before the pandemic. (Photo by: Mary Nichols)

Her mother lives in a nursing home in Kaufman County.

Nichols is used to visiting her mother often.

So as the weeks dragged on, she started worrying about how the isolation was affecting her mom’s mental state.

She said families were hopeful when Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans were in the works to allow for safe visits with families, but after nearly a month of silence, she’s frustrated.

MORE: Exclusive: Gov. Abbott says nursing home visitation announcement is coming

“The nursing home issue has taken quite a backseat,” she said.

On Thursday, the Governor’s office told KXAN there were “no plans” to adjust the restrictions on non-essential visitors at long-term care facilities. The spokesperson said that was the “most prudent” decision for resident’s safety, due to a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the state.

According to new data released by AARP, nearly 30 states have allowed for some type of visitation.

In states like Arkansas and Oklahoma, facilities that meet certain requirements can choose to allow scheduled visits during specified hours. Visitors and residents must wear masks and maintain physical distancing, and outdoor visits are encouraged.

In four states, Oregon, Mississippi, Ohio and Pennsylvania, visits aren’t allowed yet, but there is a plan in process.

In 14 states, included Texas, visits are still banned — aside from medical and emotional care for residents with terminal diagnoses or who are in end-of-life situations.

Nichols started an online petition calling for Texas nursing homes to be reopen that’s garnered more than 3,000 signatures. She partnered with another Texas petitioner, for a combined total of around 4,500 printed signatures to send to the Governor’s office.

Mary Nichols said she and another petitioner have a combined list of 4,500 family members calling for limited visits to be allowed (Photo by: Mary Nichols)

“We have got names and names and names of people who are desperate to see their loved ones,” she said. “I just don’t know if our petitions are going to solve the problem. It’s going to take being vocal.”

Nichols said several members of her Facebook group “Texas Caregivers for Compromise – Because Isolation Kills, Too” would like to organize a protest, but there’s one main reason they haven’t marched in front of the Capitol Building.

“The thing that causes us pause, the reason we have not mobilized as a group, is because we — the family members — are trying so hard to social distance in the anticipation that we might actually get in to see our family members anytime soon,” she explained.

MORE: When will Texas nursing homes be allowed to reopen to visitors?

On Tuesday, Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott warned about a spike in cases in area long-term care facilities.

“Our nursing home defenses have been penetrated, and we are seeing numbers like we were seeing early on in this outbreak,” he said.

Dr. Escott noted they identified seven facilities in need of “strike force” resources. Four strike forces have already been deployed, and a spokesperson for Austin Public Health told KXAN that the others would be in place by Friday, July 17.

KXAN Investigators confirmed 81 cases at a facility in Round Rock the same week.

“It’s so hard to know that everyone has been holding back and trying to respect those rules for the good, for the health and safety of people, and it hasn’t seemingly paid off,” Texas Long-Term Care Ombudsman Patty Ducayet said. “So, all those months of separation? It does take a toll.”

Mary Nichols checks in on her mom through a camera in the room of her Kaufman County nursing home (Photo by: Mary Nichols)

She said her office is working on plans to get back into homes to connect with residents in person. They are also working to ensure homes are providing breaks for residents outside and socially distanced group activities, while the restrictions are still in place.

“We need to make sure there is life being offered and lived, inside the facility walls,” she said.

She noted that it’s a resident’s right to leave a facility, especially for essential medical appointments, but reminds people there are consequences while these restrictions are in place.

A spokesperson for Texas Health and Human Services confirmed, for everyone’s safety, the facility must screen the resident and follow all federal and state guidance for quarantining and monitoring of that individual for 14 days when the resident returns.

They said, “Due to the vulnerability of this population to COVID-19, HHSC has advised facilities to continue to strongly discourage residents from leaving the facility except for essential medical appointments.”

Facilities and residents can find detailed guidance here.

The guidance notes if a facility has residents who leave the building on a regular basis for
essential medical appointments, quarantining is not always necessary. It also states that quarantine does not necessarily mean the resident must remain in their room for 14 days.

HHSC encouraged residents to read about their rights in the facility:

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