New death toll numbers reveal spread of coronavirus in Texas nursing homes

AUSTIN — Up to one in three of all known coronavirus-related deaths in Texas occurred in a long-term care facility, underscoring the threat the virus holds for the state’s elderly and most vulnerable residents.

According to new information the Texas Health and Human Services Commission released to The Dallas Morning News, 16% of the state’s nursing homes — 198 facilities across the state — reported that one or more residents or staff members have tested positive for the virus. Of the state’s 2,002 assisted care facilities, 52 disclosed a confirmed infection.

As of Monday, 70 people have died of COVID-19 in nursing homes across the state and assisted living facilities reported another 24 deaths since the week of March 8, the health commission confirmed. The statewide death toll stood at 288 on Monday.

Tracking the spread of the coronavirus in Texas has been difficult since these figures are in constant flux. There is a lag between when the health commission receives virus reports from long-term care facilities, which report directly to that agency, and the Department of State Health Services updates its statewide death counts, so these totals aren’t directly comparable, health officials said.

But the percentage of total coronavirus deaths occurring in long-term care facilities likely sits between 25 and 33%.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on March 19 closing long-term care facilities to outside visitors, unless they were there to provide “critical assistance.” While this move was meant “prevent unintended importation” of the coronavirus, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said “one death is too many.”

“Texas is working to prevent the loss of any life. The state has particularly focused on protecting vulnerable seniors in nursing homes,” Wittman told The News. “[Abbott] is also working with HHSC and DSHS to heighten infectious disease control in nursing home settings to minimize the impact of COVID-19.”

Health and Human Services began releasing these coronavirus figures for long-term care facilities last week, after the Texas Tribune reported the state had refused to disclose this information. Until then, city and county health offices were releasing the numbers of local infections and deaths, which are vital for judging the virus’ spread in this particularly vulnerable population.

However, the commission declined to provide the location or any detailed information about the new statewide figures, citing health privacy laws. Long-term care facilities are required to disclose any coronavirus infections and deaths to the state, but the commission said it is unaware how many tests have been administered in those settings.

Across the country, there has been a dearth of data about the virus’ spread in nursing homes, much to the alarm of Americans with loved ones living and working in these facilities. Several other states also cite privacy laws in refusing to release the locations of nursing homes with confirmed coronavirus cases.

But a recent The Wall Street Journal report found the spread was likely much worse than federal officials first estimated. According to The Journal’s survey of 37 states, including Texas, at least 2,300 people at these facilities have died from complications due to the virus. In Texas, about 25% of the state’s total deaths as of April 8 had occurred in or were related to long-term care facilities, The Journal found.

USA Today reported Monday it found 3,000 deaths in long-term care facilities across 37 states.

These statewide figures parallel the high number of deaths at long-term care facilities that officials at the city and county level have released in recent days.

In Lubbock, for example, all but 16 of the known COVID-19 related deaths were associated with nursing homes, according to an April 13 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal story. In San Antonio, there were 67 reported cases as of April 8 at just one facility, the Texas Tribune reported. And on Friday, Denton County confirmed three of its 13 coronavirus deaths occurred at the Denton Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.

Dallas County reported 100 of the 1,537 known cases as of April 10 were contracted in a long-term care facility. As of April 5, Skyline Nursing Center in Oak Cliff was the hardest hit, with 30 confirmed cases. Dallas is expected to announce at least 10 additional deaths Tuesday, some in nursing homes, the first time the county’s daily toll has reached double digits.


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