Employees at the Lufkin State Supported Living Center believe the facility’s current practices will result in the continued, unchecked spread of COVID-19 among residents and staff.
Whispers about COVID-19 cases at the center began circulating in May. But for Jane Doe, a current employee who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, the trouble really began in March.
“To me, it’s been a cover up since everything started happening,” she said.
The Lufkin State Supported Living Center (SSLC) administration deferred comment to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) when asked for additional details.
Testing was limited and has been poorly applied across employees and residents, personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies remain homemade or “bootlegged” and staffing is short, meaning sick days are few and far between, according to Doe.
“It’s scary to go to work for someone who is covering themselves more than you,” she said. “When you’re the ones they call ‘Heroes’ on paper, but don’t provide their hero with what they need to work.”
Another woman, Mary Major, left her job because of concerns about what she could take home to her immediate family. She wished to remain anonymous because she has friends and family still working at the center and didn’t want the backlash to affect their livelihoods.
“PPE is few and far between,” she said. “What is there is locked up and not readily available to staff. What we did have, we have had to either steal, stash away, or re-use. When a report was made to the state licensing board, we miraculously had an abundance of PPE show up and haven’t really seen any since. Even the custodial workers are threatening to leave due to lack of PPE.”
Recent data from the Texas Health and Human Services Agency shows 27 active resident cases with four recoveries. As a member of the direct care staff, Doe would estimate that closer to 40 residents are infected, and it’s because the center hasn’t kept the illness from seeping in with employees, she said.
Employee and outsider complaints about a lack of personal protection equipment prompted the state to visit the center early on, Doe said. But it seemed as though the center knew when the visit would happen, and were prepared.
“Someone made a complaint with the state agency, then we got all kinds of supplies,” she said. “I know I sound like some sort of conspiracy theorist, but I’m not. How did they know? It felt like Christmas Day seeing all those supplies, but as soon as they came, they were gone.”
Now, employees are reusing the same face shields every day, wearing the same gowns room to room, she said. She has cared for the people living in the isolated dorm who are suffering from COVID-19 or may soon be.
“I put on a gown, foot covers, a face shield and a mask,” Doe said about helping those in the isolated dorm. Not everyone in the isolated dorm is confirmed positive, but they need to be taken care of, she said.
“Then I handle the first room with three people, one is positive but the other two are not. I’ve now had contact with the positive, but I’ve got to go to the next room and I just know I’m bringing something from the first.”
She then puts the gown in a brown paper bag to go to the other areas on campus.
“Commercial PPE is used to ensure it is appropriate for health care settings and provides proper protection for staff and residents,” Kelli Weldon, a press officer for the Texas Health and Human Services agency, said.
“Staff are allowed to wear the same PPE when working with residents who have tested negative for COVID-19. Staff who work on the COVID isolation homes do not keep their PPE when they leave the home.”
Doe often takes her medical cart from dorm to dorm and home to home because she has no other options, she said.
“I was almost written up for insubordination because I refused to see a client without a face mask — or a shield,” Major said. “They were saying they had no more shields, but I won’t see a client without a shield, definitely not a positive client.”
It took a long while for testing to reach direct care staff, Doe said. The center began by testing the center’s management team, then those in the office — who Doe said are never in contact with actual residents — then they tested residents. Finally, they tested direct care staff, she said.
“To me, that’s where we first started going wrong,” she said.
It would have made more sense to test the employees who worked directly with residents who were going in and out of the facility as they would be the most likely to spread the virus, she said.
“It doesn’t do any good to have individuals coming back negative, while the staff that’s working with them hasn’t been tested yet,” she said.
Testing was light and more heavily regulated across the board when the coronavirus first made landfall in East Texas. It seems so long ago, but most Angelina County residents had to jump through hoops to be administered a test because they were a rare commodity in early March.
“Initially, staff were tested based on exposure and contact tracing,” Weldon said. “On May 21, Gov. Abbott directed Texas HHSC to expand COVID-19 testing to all patients, residents, and staff at the 23 state-operated inpatient psychiatric hospitals and living centers throughout Texas.”
The center conducts cheek swab testing on site. Employees are instructed to cough and then swab the inside of their cheek, Doe said. If someone is asymptomatic — even if they’ve come in contact with a positive case — they’re sent back to work until the test results come back.
And while most Americans are being instructed to “just stay home” if they’re feeling any sort of cold symptoms, this isn’t enough at the short-staffed facility, Doe said.
“I’ve seen people attempt to call in, but (supervisors) tell them to come in because they’re asymptomatic,” Doe said. “Not feeling good is not good enough. If you’re not feeling good, you need to go get a test and be positive.”
Doe believes they’re requiring people to come to work when feeling ill because the facility is short-staffed. However, the staffing levels at the facility are appropriate, Weldon said.
“HHSC continues to screen all employees for fever prior to entering its facilities,” she said. Employees are directed to not come to work, if symptomatic.”
At one point, Major’s temperature registered at 94 degrees at the front gate, she said.
“I would be dead with that temperature,” she said. “Very little life flowing through a body at that temp — you’re not talking to a person. And if this is what happened to me, they’re not even catching sick people at the threshold.
Both women had more stories, more information to share. But what they want is for the state to take the situation seriously and truly investigate the center’s practices.