Texans with disabilities who live in state-run facilities are a particularly vulnerable part of our state’s population.
More than 100 people at the Denton State Supported Living Center — one of the largest facilities for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the state of Texas — have tested positive for COVID-19. That includes at least 47 staffers.
As of Wednesday, 54 of the Denton center’s residents had tested positive, according to a press release.
“There are a total of 11 DSSLC residents who have been reported recovered thus far, but we anticipate more will be added to that list over the coming days,” Denton County Public Health Spokeswoman Jennifer Rainey said Wednesday in an email.
Denton County has experienced a lack of testing supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many community members have received testing for COVID-19 at their primary care providers or urgent care centers,” Director of Denton Public Health Dr. Matt Richardson said. “However, testing supplies have been limited and sometimes inaccessible. We are thankful for new partnerships that allow us to provide expanded drive-thru testing for community members who are ill and unable to locate testing.”
More than 3,000 Texans live at centers like the one in Denton, according to Nick Winges-Yanez, Ph.D., LMSW, an adjunct assistant professor at the Texas Center for Disability Studies through the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. Winges-Yanez has a sister with an intellectual disability.
“Texas has the most state-run institutions of any state since the closing of these institutions following the exposè of Willowbrook,” Winges-Yanez said. “The (state supported living centers) are currently under the supervision of the federal (Department of Justice) due to reports of neglect and abuse; this is part of the settlement in 2009.”
“Despite the calls to close these institutions and provide services within the community, labor unions and some family members have fought to keep the SSLCs open. Community services are not well-funded, and the waitlists for services can run up to 15 years.”
Communications and Equipment
Winges-Yanez is concerned about how testing for COVID-19 at state-run homes has been handled.
“The reports from the SSLCs have illustrated lack of communication to both families and those working and living in the centers,” Winges-Yanez says. “The sheer amount of workers coming in and out as well as the close living quarters sets up residents and workers for infection. We have not heard much about PPE for residents AND workers. When Denton requested a hospital onsite for infected residents, that request was denied. While administrators cite HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and laws for lack of communication, this is not the case with other congregate care settings.”
Families of people in the living centers have been left in the dark and feel the communication and information they have gotten haven’t been enough, the Texas Tribune reported a week ago. Families have had concerns about how many people at the facilities have been infected with coronavirus.
The Austin State Supported Living Center has been dealing with a shortage of personal protective equipment during the pandemic, the Austin American-Statesman reported a week ago.
Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported a COVID-19 related death at The Richmond State Supported Living Center. Also last week Fort Bend County Judge KP George announced a new program for the demand and need of personal protection equipment in the area.
“There is a great need for PPE for our medical community, first responders and health providers because of the worldwide shortage of these items,” said George.
“It’s very, very hard right now. We’re just kind of from the outside looking in and trying to be positive,” one family said in an NPR report at the end of March.
Other families are worried, too, Lisa Snead, supervising attorney at Disability Rights Texas, wrote in an email Wednesday.
“While we don’t speak for all families or residents, we have spoken with several guardians and family members whose loved ones reside in the state supported living centers across the state. Because family members are not able to see their loved ones in person due to the visitation restrictions, there is increased worry about how their residents are faring during this health care crisis.”
“We have also heard reports from families that the centers are not answering their questions or answering their questions timely about what conditions are like at the facilities.”
The Texas Health & Human Services Commission is working with local health departments on testing for people at state supported living centers, said Christine Mann, chief press officer with the Texas Health & Human Services Commission.
“We’ve increased the use of video conferencing, worked to add phone lines, and we’ve increased the frequency of our updates to loved ones whether by phone, video chat, email or standard mail,” Mann said in an email Wednesday. “We’re continuing to explore ways we can keep families and residents in close contact as this situation evolves.”
On any campus in which a resident tests positive for COVID-19, all staff on the campus wear face masks, Mann explained.
“Staff working in homes with COVID-19-positive residents are dedicated to those homes only, using the appropriate personal protective equipment and are following all CDC guidelines to protect their safety and prevent spread. This includes masks, face shield masks, N95 masks, gloves and gowns. Additionally, we’re continuing to educate and train staff on infection control procedures.”
Snead brought up other struggles people with disabilities face at state supported living centers.
“Some residents have underlying health conditions, which put them at higher risk of serious complications if they contract the virus. Some residents because of their disability may not be able to practice mitigation procedures such as social distancing or frequent hand washing that protect them from contracting the virus. In general, residents at state-supported living centers and all people who live in congregate care settings are at a higher risk of infection because social distancing becomes impossible and many require assistance from staff for activities of daily living.”
Though the residents are isolated from the community, Snead said, “the community (and thus exposure to the virus) is coming to them every day as staff go home, go about their lives, and then return to the facilities.”
Mann said that on March 5, travel screenings had started for all staffers on whether they had visited a country identified by the CDC as high risk or whether they had contact with someone who had. Visitation restrictions to our centers were implemented on March 13.
“We continue to screen all employees for fever and respiratory illness prior to entrance into the facility. Temperature checks on staff and essential visitors before entry into campus began on March 16 and remain in place. Any person with a fever or unexplained signs of respiratory illness is not allowed entrance to the center.”
“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we will continue adapting our policies and procedures as necessary,” Mann said.