SPECIAL REPORT: Nursing Home Nightmare

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HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO) — Nursing homes across the nation were one of the first to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic before it was spread across cities, including the Rio Grande Valley.

The difference between city residents and nursing home residents was nursing home residents had no other option but to stay inside and hope staff was doing their part to stop the spread.

Terry Kirkland, a former Windsor Atrium resident, said he is one of the lucky ones able to leave before the virus started to take the lives of those in the facility.

KVEO Clara Benitez asked Kirkland if he was happy to have left the nursing home.

“You better believe it.” said Kirkland.  “I got 2 baths, the whole time I was there, the whole time.”

Cameron County confirmed their first COVID-19 death on Monday, April 6, 2020.

An 81-year-old resident living at the Veranda Nursing Home in Harlingen was the first fatal victim of the virus in Cameron County.

Veranda Nursing Home is only eight minutes away from Windsor Atrium, where Kirkland was staying. 

Kirkland wasn’t unfamiliar with Windsor Atriums practices, he had stayed there before, even celebrating two anniversaries in the facility.

“We knew the food was terrible, we have been there several times for the knees and the physical therapy is excellent, it is probably the best in the Valley,” said Kirkland.  

Except, this time around, Kirkland said it was much different.

“Boy oh boy it changed for the worse, and I don’t know if anything will be done about it, but I can see why they had the disaster.”

Once COVID-19 was in the facility, there was no way to get it out. One by one, residents and employees started getting sick – then the deaths followed.

Brian Lee, the Executive Director for Families for Better Care, said Texas needs to do a better job at taking care of its nursing home residents.

“Texas is the worst nursing home state before this pandemic, the quality overall by in large in nursing homes are not good. It’s the worst in the nation,” said Lee.

According to Lee, the pandemic highlighted the already existing flaws inside nursing homes. 

In May 2020, KVEO requested all electronic communications from the Cameron County Health Department relating to both nursing homes.

Cameron County halted KVEO’s request by asking the Attorney General to not allow the release of the information. 

In the letter to the Attorney General, Cameron County cited pending litigation and said:

The 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has substantially impacted the economy, the judiciary, and the ability of counsel and parties to comply with requests for records and to evaluate potential litigation… Therefore, Cameron County is entitled to protection pursuant to the deliberative privilege and can reasonably anticipate that it will be a party to a lawsuit or lawsuits in relation to all aspects of the issues and decisions made in connection with the County’s response and ordered related to the COVID-19 pandemic, health emergency, and disaster.

Veranda Nursing Home and Winsdor Atrium were made aware of KVEO’s request and denied releasing any information in conjunction with the county.

“If we would have had the right type of staffing numbers prior to this pandemic, better staffing level, we wouldn’t have had so many outbreaks. We would have been able to handle things a little better because the nursing homes would have been able to slow down a little bit,” said Lee.  

Lee says many nursing home staff work at multiple locations making minimum wage for doing one of the hardest jobs in the nation.

According to Lee, the only way to fix this issue is implement a law.  

“The only way it’s going to change is, it’s going to take a statutory requirement for the nursing homes to have some sort of minimum staffing standard,” said Lee.  

Lee added that, regardless of the care and the number of violations the nursing home might receive, they still get paid.

As the vaccine rollout continues across the nation and nursing homes, Lee says it’s important to continue to keep an eye on these facilities as the challenges inside are never-ending.

“Survive off of Medicaid and Medicare re-investment dollars no matter what the quality is they still get paid, 80 percent of the money comes from those reimbursement paid by you and taxpayers,” said Lee.  “We are almost at the finish line at this pandemic – we have these vaccines that are coming out now there is a real hope now that this could be the end of this pandemic – not just for the residents but for all of us.”

Kirkland feels the facilities need to be held accountable for the lives lost inside nursing homes, stating:

“Somebody needs to be held accountable, somebody should go to jail.”

Currently, there are no liability protections for nursing homes – meaning family members of a resident who passed away inside the nursing home could sue for COVID-19 negligence.

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