HARLINGEN — City officials continue to monitor nursing homes here as an 81-year-old man becomes Cameron County’s first confirmed death stemming from the coronavirus.
The man had been hospitalized at Valley Baptist Medical Center after living in the Veranda Rehabilitation and Healthcare.
“We are watching them very closely, and we’re very, very concerned,” Mayor Chris Boswell said Monday. “Our hearts go out to the family of the resident who died. It’s always difficult to lose a loved one. In a time like this, it may be even more difficult.”
At City Hall, officials are concerned nursing home health care workers “moving between different nursing homes and long-term care facilities” are behind a spike in COVID-19 cases.
On Sunday, Dr. Michael Mohun, the city’s newly appointed health authority, released orders governing nursing homes, mandating them to follow federal guidelines aimed at screening while submitting response plans.
“We’re trying to take every precaution possible,” Mohun said Monday. “You’re looking at the most vulnerable part of the population — the elderly. The coronavirus has a higher mortality rate among the elderly.”
Boswell said South Texas Emergency Care Foundation, the city’s ambulance company, is monitoring the transportation of patients to health care facilities.
Mohun said he’s studying cases in Washington State, where a Seattle-area nursing home became the center of 37 deaths stemming from the virus.
The Washington nursing home failed to notify county health officials for more than two weeks after it started discouraging visitors, following an outbreak initially blamed on the flu.
Now, that nursing home faces a federal fine of more than $611,000 for its failed responses to the outbreak, The Washington Post reported.
“We try to take lessons learned from other areas of the country,” Mohun said.
At Veranda, Administrator Jason Hess stated the nursing home continues to comply with requirements.
“Please know that we are deeply saddened by the loss of our resident this morning,” Hess stated. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends as they attempt to navigate in his absence.”
The directive’s orders
On Sunday, Mohun released directives prohibiting the city’s nursing homes and rehabilitation centers from sharing health care staff and transferring residents to other facilities.
“This directive is effective immediately and failure to comply could result in civil and criminal enforcement action,” a city press release stated.
The order also mandates nursing homes to “immediately” implement the Centers for Disease Control’s screening guidelines and procedures.
Mohun ordered nursing homes to provide a “comprehensive COVID-19 response plan that includes rapid identification and management of ill residents, considerations for visitors and consultant staff, supplies and resources, sick leave policies and other occupational health considerations and education and training.”
“Dr. Mohun’s directive is a result of the recent spike in COVID-19 positive cases, which the city has reason to believe is being caused by the movement of health care staff and health care support staff moving between different nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as to and from health care facilities,” city spokeswoman Irma Garza stated in the press release.
On Monday, Hess said Veranda was following the directives.
“As far as the recent health control directive issued by the city of Harlingen, we understand and respect the city’s position,” Hess stated.
“Several of the referenced interventions have previously been the subject of CMS or CDC guidance. With respect to those protocols, Veranda Rehabilitation and Healthcare has been fully compliant since the time the guidance was originally received (if not before),” Hess stated.
“The facility has always had a robust infection prevention and control plan in place and has expanded this plan in response to the coronavirus situation,” he stated. “We are fully committed to taking action consistent with federal, state and city directives and with keeping our residents and staff safe during these challenging times.”
With Cameron County at 87 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of press time Monday, the first two deaths from the virus in the Rio Grande Valley are both associated with Veranda, according to Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., who held a press conference Monday afternoon.
The first person in the Valley to die was a Veranda employee who resided in Willacy County.
On March 31, Treviño announced three confirmed cases of the virus at Veranda.
Now, 11 employees and 11 residents of the facility have tested positive and all are in isolation, he said.
Ten employees and 10 residents have tested negative and 39 other test results are pending. Those whose results are pending are not working at Veranda, Treviño said.
He offered his condolences to the families of the victims.
Treviño said the county planned to draft an order addressing conditions at nursing facilities and reflecting orders Harlingen and other jurisdictions have already issued.
The Brownsville Herald reporter Steve Clark contributed to this report.