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Denton County asks state for temporary hospital after COVID-19 outbreak at state supported living center

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The Denton State Supported Living Center in Denton on March 22, 2020. Cooper Neill for The Texas Tribune

Warning that a COVID-19 outbreak at a state-run home for people with disabilities could quickly overwhelm health care workers, local officials in Denton called on Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday to build a temporary hospital on site.

At least six residents of the Denton State Supported Living Center have tested positive for the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Denton Mayor Chris Watts and Denton County Judge Andy Eads wrote.

“The residents and 1,400 employees of the Facility are at great risk for a rapid devastating spread of COVID-19 throughout the campus,” they wrote to Abbott. “In such an event, the local medical capacity could be quickly overwhelmed.”

The “medical and intellectual fragility of these potential patients” requires a special degree of care that local hospitals could not handle while caring for other patients sick with COVID-19, the mayor and county judge wrote.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, support the creation of a temporary hospital, according to the letter.

An Abbott spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Denton officials first disclosed the outbreak at the state-supported living center this weekend. At the time, they said four residents had been infected and hospitalized. Three residents are in their 60s and another is in his 50s, officials said.

Tuesday’s letter indicated the outbreak had grown to six. County public health workers have said they are working to determine who the COVID-19 patients had been in contact with.

Virtually all outside visits to state-supported living centers and nursing homes have been prohibited since March 13.

On Saturday, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees the living centers, said the agency was not “going to confirm individual cases at this point” at any of the state’s 13 facilities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“State Supported Living Centers are preparing for the spread of COVID-19 and will isolate any resident who tests positive or is suspected of being infected with COVID-19 in a private room with a private bathroom and a single entry-exit point,” agency spokeswoman Christine Mann said in an email. “The resident will be encouraged to wear a mask and all staff members who come in contact with him or her will be wearing appropriate personal protective equipment.”

Mann said the living centers were screening staff and residents for COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever and cough. Staff will check residents for symptoms and take their temperature three times per day, and residents who can tolerate wearing a mask will be encouraged to do so, she said.

Employees who have been exposed to the virus will be removed from living center campuses, Mann said, and they are not allowed to return to campus for at least 14 days unless they test negative for COVID-19.

Jay Root contributed to this story.