An East Austin nursing home in the Central Texas community hit hardest by the coronavirus has reported dozens of cases among its residents and staff, including at least one death.

Riverside Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has documented one of the highest numbers of cases of the disease among the city’s nursing homes — 82, relatives of Riverside residents said they were told by facility directors on Friday. However, city and facility officials would not confirm the exact number or say how many residents have died of the disease, citing privacy concerns. Based on anonymized data from city health officials, it’s likely that multiple Riverside residents have died.

Riverside and several other Central Texas nursing homes — including West Oaks Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which has the most cases, with 111 staffers and residents diagnosed with the disease — are operated by Victoria-based Regency Integrated Health Services, owned by the Hamilton County Hospital District east of Waco.

“It’s just incredible they didn’t protect anybody,” said Dawn Maracle, whose 74-year-old stepfather, a resident at Riverside, has been hospitalized with COVID-19 for more than a month. “He was supposed to be safe and taken care of.”

The federal government cited 122-bed Riverside 10 times in 2019 for health violations; the average in Texas was seven. The facility has received the lowest possible rating from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — one out of five stars.

The facility has also had to pay $72,000 in penalties over a three-year period, which is uncommon. Penalties are not often doled out to Central Texas nursing homes, according to a review of nursing home inspections by the Statesman.

Riverside nursing home is in the 78741 ZIP code, which includes the East Riverside and Montopolis neighborhoods and has the highest number of cases among all ZIP codes in Travis, Williamson, Hays and Bastrop counties combined.

As of Friday, 266 of the region’s 3,612 cases were reported in 78741, which has high percentages of low-income people and minorities.

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Regency said in a statement that it will let the federal government reveal the number of cases at the facility. It said it continues to follow recommendations from federal, state and local health authorities. It also said it notifies all residents, staffers and family members about COVID-19 cases and updates families on a regular basis.

Multiple relatives of Riverside residents said communication by Regency has been paltry.

“You need to start communicating to the family members. You need to start being transparent. I should be able to give you the number of cases at Riverside because I should be getting this from Regency, and they’re just not budging,” said Cissy Sanders, the daughter of a Riverside resident.

As of Thursday, 434 nursing home residents had been diagnosed with the disease in Central Texas – about 2% of all beds in these facilities in the region, according to state data. Eighty-four of those nursing home residents have died.

Dying alone

Among the most heartbreaking things about losing her brother Stephen Morales to COVID-19 is that he had to die alone, said Delia Satterwhite. Morales, a 71-year-old with dementia, lived at Riverside for four years. He died there April 16.

“It’s just so hard because I couldn’t be there for him,” said Satterwhite, who visited her brother every Saturday.

The nursing home called Satterwhite on April 3 to tell her that Morales was going to be isolated in a separate room because he had a fever. A week later, test results showed he was positive for the virus, and the staff said he had developed pneumonia, Satterwhite said. Acting as his medical power of attorney, she said she pleaded with the nursing home to hospitalize him if his symptoms became worse, but the staff did not take him to the hospital because he had refused.

Morales tried persuading her brother to go to the hospital during their last visit.

“You don’t want to go to hospital so they can help you?” she recalled telling her brother through the window. “He said, ‘No, I’m tired.’ He had given up.”

The last words Morales shared with Satterwhite: “I love you, sis.”

Satterwhite wishes the staff would have taken him to the hospital despite her brother’s request. She also wishes staffers could have been more responsive to questions about how her brother was doing in the days leading up to his death.

“Why is it that nobody wants to answer the phone? I had called several times, pretty much every day two or three times a day, and nobody wanted to talk to me,” she said.

Satterwhite believes more have died of COVID-19 at Riverside. When she went to retrieve Morales’ belongings from the nursing home last week, staffers gave her a box of things that belonged to another deceased resident, she said.

It was disrespectful to the life he lived, Satterwhite said. “He had family. He had his sister that cared about him. I cared about my brother.”

Push for rapid testing

Federal officials said they would name nursing homes with infections nationwide by the end of the month.

Maracle said she wants to know the identities of facilities so that if her stepfather recovers, she can send him to one that has not had any COVID-19 cases.

At the very least, Maracle wants more testing performed at nursing homes. Her stepfather, who entered Riverside for rehabilitation in February after a stroke, was tested only after he was rushed to the hospital because his heart was racing and his oxygen levels had fallen.

“The last time we talked to him, which was about two or three days ago on Zoom, he was just crying and saying, ‘I can’t take any more of this,’ ” Maracle said. “It was really heartbreaking.”

Gov. Greg Abbott announced May 11 that all nursing home residents and staff members would be tested. About 190 of the 1,200 nursing facilities statewide have completed testing, and three dozen more facilities were being tested as of Thursday, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Sanders said the efforts are not sufficient.

She has called and emailed lawmakers and advocates almost every day for weeks asking for all Texas nursing homes to get rapid testing machines, which can spit out results in minutes, with hopes that her mother can be spared the disease. Sanders said such measures need to occur before reopening nursing homes to visitors, something on which the federal government is already providing guidance to states.

Families for Better Care, an Austin-based nursing home watchdog group, is pushing to have monetary penalties collected from nursing homes used to purchase rapid testing machines.

Texas has used such money for a variety of purposes related to nursing homes, including nurse aide training, mobile dentistry, aroma therapy and leather craft workshops for residents. The state has about $13 million available, said Brian Lee, Families for Better Care’s executive director.

The machines cost about $4,500, according to a USA Today report.

“These fines have been collected on the backs of our loved ones,” Lee said. “This would give an avenue, a pathway, for families to get back into the nursing homes to see their loved ones, to hold on to, to care for them, to touch them, to just be around them and love them.”

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