Preliminary data released by the federal government provides a painful new look into the devastating effects of COVID-19 on nursing homes.
More than 95,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and almost 32,000 related deaths among residents and staff were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Healthcare Safety Network by federally-funded facilities as of May 31.
While incomplete, the information provides an unprecedented look into specific nursing homes in Texas, a state that has been tight-lipped on COVID-19 in nursing homes and not released facility-level data.
“It is useful because we’re still concerned,” said Julie McElhaney, a retired Victoria resident who spent 40 years working as a registered nurse.
Her mother, Betty Hadsall, turned 91 in May at Retama Manor South in Victoria, where McElhaney visits her from outside a window. She said she has been pleased with both the care her mother has received and communication from Retama regarding COVID-19.
She was relieved to hear her mother tested negative for the virus during facility-wide testing, but, as with anyone with a loved one in a nursing home, she knows a serious risk remains.
“When somebody gets COVID in a facility, they’ve had like 20% to 40% of the residents who are dead (in some instances),” she said. “That is concerning because we may be reopening the economy, and I understand that, but the pandemic is not over yet.”
At least seven COVID-19 cases and one COVID-19-related death are linked to two nursing homes in Wharton and Victoria counties, which are among 26 federally funded nursing homes in the region required to submitted COVID-19 surveys to the CDC at least once a week.
An eighth case of COVID-19 was tied to La Bahia Nursing in Goliad County, where a health care worker tested positive for the virus, said Jimmy Schulze, Goliad County’s emergency management coordinator.
The case is not reflected in CMS data, which was last updated May 31.
Calls to the facility owner, Daybreak Ventures, were not returned.
The only death related to COVID-19 that was reported to the CDC in the region was that of an employee at Retama Manor South in Victoria.
“All of the deaths this country has experienced as a result of COVID-19 are devastating and our staff member’s passing is no different,” Oscar Flores, the facility’s administrator, said by email. “We offer our deepest sympathies and condolences to his family.”
Flores declined to provide any further information about the employee or their death.
According to federal data, Retama also reported that one person who recovered from COVID-19 had been admitted to the nursing home, and two residents and three staff members were suspected to have the coronavirus as of May 31.
Since then, Retama announced that all staff and residents tested negative for COVID-19 in a Facebook post.
By the way the data is presented, it could appear Retama had admitted a positive COVID-19 patient. Flores clarified that the patient tested negative for COVID-19 before entering the center.
“The point of this is to simply state there are discrepancies in the data collected and the data reported, of which we believe people should be aware,” he said.
A total of 31 deficiencies were identified at Retama during the past three years, including one for failing to provide and implement an infection prevention and control program, according to annual inspection reports.
Caney Creek Nursing and Rehab, formerly known as Avalon Place Wharton, reported that four residents and two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 31.
The center did not respond to requests for comment.
In the past three years, 38 deficiencies have been found at Caney Creek during annual federal inspections, including two for failing to provide and implement an infection prevention and control program, according to annual inspection reports.
The federal agency releasing the data has emphasized that just because a nursing home has a case of COVID-19 does not mean the facility is out of compliance with federal requirements. Cases and shortages of supplies or staff do, however, help officials monitor nursing home conditions.
Almost a quarter of local nursing facilities that reported to the CDC said they had experienced at least one shortage of either supplies or staff in the past two weeks.
But many shortages change from week-to-week.
When CMS releases new figures reflecting the first two weeks of June, they are likely to reflect changes in shortages and account for more of testing done at nursing homes in the region as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders to test all residents and staff statewide.
Victoria officials set up a task force to help facilities implement testing in May.
While the state asked that all tests be completed by May 25, Victoria Fire Chief Tracy Fox said the sheer volume of tests being sent to labs delayed the process.
COVID-19 testing for nursing home residents and staff in Victoria County was completed June 3, he said. The task force also helped with testing at nursing homes in neighboring counties such as Lavaca, but the state had to be called in once the lab became overwhelmed.
“The volume of testing being produced on a daily basis was more than the lab could process efficiently and they asked that we slow down the process,” Fox said. “So we moved to reaching out to the state to process at the state lab.”
All testing for nursing home facilities in the Golden Crescent was completed on Wednesday, said Sarah Quick, health care coalition preparedness coordinator for the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council. The state has advised facilities to expect results within 7-10 days of testing, she said.
While the majority of local nursing homes have been completing the required reporting, the federal database accounts for only 88% of federally funded facilities nationwide. Assisted living facilities also are not included.
About 26% in the Crossroads failed to submit their data as of May 31.
Six of the seven area facilities that did not report to the CDC are owned by TAG Management Services.
The national reporting platform was unable to onboard those facilities as a result of a tight reporting deadline, according to Kimberly Kubecka, operations office manager for TAG.
“At this time, all the TAG MGT facilities in the region have been able to report, with the exception of Ganado Nursing and Rehabilitation, and Shady Oak Nursing and Rehabilitation,” she said.
Four of the six facilities have already received their COVID-19 test results reflecting no positive cases among residents and staff, Kubecka said. Those facilities, including Twin Pines Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Victoria, Twin Pines North Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Victoria, Shiner Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Shiner and Shady Oak Nursing and Rehabilitation in Moulton.
Citizens Medical Center also encountered issues while trying to submit the data, said Jennifer McDaniel, a spokeswoman for the hospital.
“We are working closely with the CDC National Healthcare Safety Network to add our data to their system,” she said. “We have continued tracking our data during this process, and it will be retroactively submitted.”
McDaniel said Wednesday that the nursing facility at Citizens had no COVID-19 cases among residents or staff and no persons under investigation for possible infection.
Starting June 7, facilities that fail to report at least weekly will face fines starting at $1,000.
CMS said it expects the data to stabilize as nursing homes become more familiar with how to submit data.
Patty Ducayet, the State Long-Term Care Ombudsman, said she hopes data also becomes more user-friendly for those who need it most.
“The information is critically important. It is something that residents, families and the public have a right to know and we need to learn from it,” she said. “But the CMS data is difficult to understand, and I have not been satisfied with the way it is published.
“It is perhaps useful in someway to researchers or the press or some high-level analyst, but it doesn’t seem to be designed for families and residents.”
Victoria’s new director of parks and recreation is looking to residents for help to create a new vision for the city’s parks.
One of the first projects for director Jason Alfaro, 37, will be leading the development of a new parks and recreation master plan for the city, which largely will be based on feedback from the community. The master plan essentially will act as a road map for the department to follow when it comes to the parks system, he said.
“I’m really excited for that,” said Alfaro, who began his work with the city in late May. “I’m ready to see what the community says about our parks and what they’d like to see in our parks.”
The city’s previous parks and recreation master plan was adopted in 2012.
A Victoria native, Alfaro has 17 years of experience in parks, most recently as the director of parks and recreation in Jersey Village. He took over as director in Victoria after Colby VanGundy retired in February.
The parks and recreation master plan process likely will take between six months to one year, Alfaro said, but will include various opportunities for community feedback through surveys and meetings.
Gloria Rodriguez, who serves on the city parks and recreation commission, said she’s excited to see what Alfaro brings to the table.
“I think there are so many gems here in Victoria with our parks, so I’m excited to see his new ideas,” she said. “It’s a new and exciting time.”
In his first few weeks, Alfaro said he’s heard from residents the desire for a duck pond – which was one of his favorite spots before he left Victoria, and is an ongoing project – and a dog park.
“Almost every person that I run into asks about a dog park,” he said.
Rodriguez also said she hears the request for a dog park often.
“The question of a dog park is always lingering,” she said. “It’s a huge project so many people would enjoy.”
Alfaro’s passion for parks and recreation was solidified when he worked for the department in Bastrop when wildfires devastated the area in 2011.
Working with Texas Forest Service as well as outside organizations and nonprofits to bring life back to the community through trees, he said, was “amazing.” The first year the community had a tree giveaway, more than 20,000 saplings were given out to people in a line that was a mile long.
“When I saw that, I was like ‘Wow, trees of all things brought everyone together,’” he said. “To be able to see that – and that’s just a piece of parks and recreation – and just realize how large of an impact parks and recreation has on a community as a whole, I thought was really intriguing.”
For the Victoria’s parks department internally, Alfaro said he plans to focus on safety, efficiency and creating a fun working environment.
Alfaro is a certified Park and Recreation Professional and an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. He is also a member of the National Recreation and Park Association and the Texas Recreation and Park Society.
Coming to work in Victoria, he said, is “a blessing and an honor.”
“It’s not very often that you’re able to have an impact in our community, especially your hometown that you grew up in, in a position like this,” he said.
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Eleven new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Victoria County on Thursday, bringing the county’s total to 197. This is the second-highest daily total to date.
“COVID is still very much present in our community and in our state,” said David Gonzales, director of the Victoria County Public Health Department. “Maybe folks are letting their guard down a little bit and not taking some of the precautions they were before. We really want people to understand this is not going away.”
Area officials are meeting today morning to discuss the current state of the pandemic and future steps for the county, Gonzales said.
“Don’t let your guard down,” said Victoria Mayor Rawley McCoy. “You still need to be careful. You still need to do social distancing. You still need to wear masks when appropriate and practice basic hygiene, washing those hands.”
On Wednesday, Texas recorded 2,504 new cases, a new high, according to the Texas Tribune.
Officials said 151 patients in Victoria County had recovered and 38 patients’ cases remained active.
Eight Victoria residents have died while infected with the virus.
One more county resident has tested positive for COVID-19, local officials said Thursday.
In total, 51 residents have been infected with the virus, according to the county’s emergency management office. Of those, 39 patients have recovered. Three residents have died.
One new case was reported in DeWitt County on Thursday. The individual who tested positive is a 73-year-old nursing home resident.
The patient, who is in isolation, has not been in contact with anyone known to have the virus, according to the county’s Office of Emergency Management, so additional testing will be conducted in order to exclude a false positive diagnosis.
This is DeWitt County’s 26th case. Fifteen residents have recovered and one has died.
Nine more cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wharton County on Thursday.
In total, 85 residents of the county have tested positive for the coronavirus. Of those patients, 42 have been classified as recovered by the state health department.
“We are often asked why our numbers and the numbers from DSHS don’t exactly match day to day,” Andy Kirkland, the county’s emergency management coordinator said in a news release. “Currently, the state has a number of cases that have positive test results, but they have not yet confirmed all of the vital information they need in order to correctly report to the county level.”
Mobile COVID-19 testing will be in Wharton County next week from 9 am. to 6 p.m. at three locations.
Testing on Monday and Friday will be at the El Campo Civic Center, testing on Tuesday and Thursday will be at the Wharton Civic Center and testing on Wednesday will be at the American Legion Pos￼t, 226 East Bernard.
Citizens must register for an appointment 24-hours in advance by calling 512-883-2400 or visit txcovidtest.org.
Most hospitals in the Crossroads are now permitting patients to have one adult visitor to accompany them, a shift from the stricter policies in place at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, thus far most local public health experts agree the virus did not spread as quickly in the region as it did in other parts of Texas.
Citizens Medical Center and DeTar Healthcare System, the region’s largest health care institutions, now both permit patients to have one adult visitor in the hospital with them. Visitors are still screened for symptoms and asked to wear a face mask.
“Acknowledging experiencing the presence of a loved one decreases anxiety and promotes healing, Monday, June 8 CMC will permit one support person to accompany a patient throughout the day,” according to Citizens updated policy.
Memorial Medical Center in Port Lavaca has also decided to allow one visitor per patient per day, according to its new visitation policy.
Cuero Regional Hospital permits one visitor per patient during set visiting hours.
Lavaca Medical Center in Hallettsville is allowing two visitors per patient during set visiting hours, according to the hospital’s latest policy.
The Jackson County Hospital District in Edna has also resumed most of its patient services.
Although the Victoria area did not see as intense of a COVID-19 outbreak compared to other parts of the state and country, rising numbers of new infections in Texas and an increase in COVID-19 patients needing hospital care has many public health officials worried the virus hasn’t abated enough for the state to fully return to normal.
At least 2,153 COVID-19 patients needed hospital care on Wednesday, a record high in Texas since the beginning of the pandemic, according to state data.