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Lawmakers, Texans call for testing, transparency as COVID-19 threatens Texas nursing homes

HOUSTON – Natashia Foglesong’s 92-year-old grandmother lives in the Park Manor nursing home in Conroe, Texas and she’s been worried about her since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March.

“Her life has been uprooted,” Foglesong said. “She’s had to move rooms from where she was normally. She doesn’t have all of her things.”

Like many nursing homes across the U.S., COVID-19 found its way inside Park Manor, where two residents have died from the virus. A third resident died at a facility in The Woodlands. Residents who test positive are placed in isolation units. To prevent further spread of the virus to one of the most vulnerable segments of the population, the state barred non-essential visitors from entering nursing homes until the pandemic subsides.

RELATED: Details on how to test all Texas nursing home residents, staff still being ironed out, officials say

“I can call her on the cell phone,” Foglesong said. “At 92, everything is a panic to her.”

HMG Healthcare runs these facilities and proactively implemented a regular testing schedule for employees and residents, and so far, Foglesong’s grandmother has tested negative.

“I realize this is new and we’re all doing the best that we can and that there’s had to be a lot of changes,” said Foglesong. “It’s hard not seeing her in person.”

This is far from an isolated case, Channel 2 Investigates found COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes across the state — from Houston to Beaumont to Paris, Texas. However, finding out exactly which facilities are experiencing outbreaks is a challenge. Nursing homes are not required to publicly disclose this information. Some do it on their own, but most are tight-lipped.

Even county health departments are spotty in what they will and won’t release. Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees these facilities, will only release raw numbers — 381 nursing homes and assisted living facilities are reporting COVID-19 cases. There have been 514 deaths, which accounts for nearly half of all COVID-19 related fatalities in the state.

Since the state doesn’t have to disclose which nursing homes have cases, we created our own database. We reached out to nursing homes across Texas and filled in some of the blanks with reports from our NBC affiliates in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. The database is a work in progress and will be updated once new information is available.

Houston Democratic Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, who has a sister in one of these facilities, is pushing for greater transparency.

“To me, every family member should have a right to that information before they make their decisions on where their relative should be,” said Garcia. “I still worry, just like any other relative and not being able to see and visit is just so hard.”

Garcia said getting widespread accurate data on positive cases and fatalities will help shape future responses to viral outbreaks.

“We need this so we can plan for the next pandemic,” said Garcia.

Charles Brown is an attorney who specializes in holding negligent nursing homes accountable, but he is pledging not to take and COVID-19 related cases. He said many facilities are facing unprecedented challenges and can be easily overwhelmed by a virus that many people are transmitting unknowingly.

“I would say that nursing homes are predictably a hotbed for what we’re going to deal with and are still going to deal with in the fall,” Brown said.

This all comes as Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered that all nursing home residents and staff in the state must be tested for coronavirus. State health officials estimate that about 80,000 residents live in facilities across the state and there is twice as many staff. The state has yet to work out the logistics of completing all this testing.

Widespread testing is something Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee supports.

“We’ve got to have the highest level of medical care which includes testing and reporting the data to know how we continue to handle nursing homes,” Jackson said.

KPRC 2, along with other media outlets across the state, have asked the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to release the names of the facilities with COVID-19 cases, but the agency is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton to rule on the request.