The coronavirus pandemic is a disaster — no question — but the way that we’ve handled it has compounded the scale of how COVID-19 has penetrated every part of our life, and it hasn’t helped when it comes to how we communicate about the virus.
The latest — and, perhaps, the most troubling — example of a communication failure related to managing the virus showed up this week when the state of Texas was unable to completely address, confirm or acknowledge the scale of a COVID-19 outbreak at Kerrville’s Waterside Nursing and Rehabilitation.
What we’ve seen since Oct. 2 is a slow-rolling disaster develop among some of our most vulnerable residents. It’s one that we’re only now fully learning what happened in the Water Street-based facility, which is owned by a Fort Worth-based operator of nursing homes around the state.
Due to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission insistence on maintaining a two-week buffer on its reporting on outbreaks, the lack of transparency presents a significant public health emergency to our community, because it clearly fails to inform communities about the horrors COVID-19 is waging inside nursing homes. That’s exactly what happened at Waterside and, yet, we still don’t fully understand what happened there other than a promise from the Health and Human Services Commission that they are “investigating.”
The problem with this Health and Human Services’ strategy is that it doesn’t address the impact on the employees, who are still able to expose other members of the community to the virus. While the patients are kept at Waterside, the employees are able to come and go and no one — at least at the local level — seemed to understand the scale of what was happening with dozens of employees at the facility. In a state report from Nov. 3, Waterside had 24 employees sickened by the virus.
However, as we’ve noted, we’re only finding out about this now. We have no idea about the contact tracing involved here and we have no idea what mitigation efforts are being taken to control the virus inside of the facility. The silence has been deafening.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was adamant that every patient at the state’s nursing homes, along with the staff, had to be tested for the coronavirus. So, the Kerrville Fire Department was charged in June with screening more than 600 people in the city’s five nursing homes. It was an urgent matter.
However, as the first wave of the virus started to relax, Abbott’s sense of urgency has passed and now we’re facing an even more formidable wave of infections across the state. So, how do we protect our most vulnerable? Well, we have no idea because of the state’s absence of leadership in providing sound mitigation guidance as things progressed, and that includes communicating the danger to the community.
In the terms of the Waterside outbreak, there are some in the community that would dismiss this “as they’re already in anursing home,” but we’re struck by the words of a nurse at the facility who came forward to alert us to the issues there: “It was heartbreaking,” the nurse said of the deaths. “These people work hard all of their lives. They raise families. It wasn’t fair. It shouldn’t have been a way they left this world.
“I think, honestly, it was heartbreaking because you get close to these patients and you get to know them. You’re taking care of them and they become a part of you. We already know they’re frail, and this wiped them out.”
She’s right they didn’t deserve this. In fact, they deserved better. We deserve better.