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Virus testing ordered at all state-run homes, hospitals in wake of El Paso Psychiatric Center outbreak

El Paso Psychiatric Center
El Paso Matters
The El Paso Psychiatric Center.

EL PASO, Texas -- Gov. Greg Abbott is directing the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to expand coronavirus testing to all patients, residents and staff members at the 23 state-run homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and state-run psychiatric hospitals.

Among the state hospitals in Texas is the El Paso Psychiatric Center, where a widely-reported virus outbreak that started in April had produced at least 53 cases with one death of an employee of the facility. Health officials recently indicated 48 of those infected had recovered.

An email sent Thursday to employees from the state official who oversees the facilities outlined the testing plans, which were later confirmed by the governor's office.

“In our continuing effort to protect the health and safety of both our residents and you, we are expanding Covid-19 testing to all residents and employees in our state supported living centers,” wrote Scott Schalchlin, associate commissioner of state supported living centers.

The announcement of the testing expansion comes days after The Texas Tribune reported that a spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said the state-supported living centers and state psychiatric hospitals would not receive aid to test all residents, patients and employees, even as testing was being made available for all residents and staff at nursing homes. The 23 state-run facilities collectively serve around 4,700 of the state’s most vulnerable residents and employ 18,873 full-time staff members.

The test kits for the state supported living center residents have been ordered and are on their way, Schalchlin wrote. The agency is “working on a broader plan to get the test kits for staff,” he added.

Previously, residents and patients were only tested if they displayed symptoms of Covid-19 or had possible exposure to the virus. The new round of testing will cover those who have shown no signs of Covid-19 or have not been tested within the last 30 days, Abbott said.

For months, employees and family members of residents at the state-run homes have raised concerns about outbreaks and called for increased testing. In recent weeks, several state lawmakers have also called for widespread testing at the state supported living centers.

"The residents we are now testing do not have symptoms and we have no reason to believe they have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19, but by taking this step, we will increase our ability to prevent the spread of the virus in our facilities and throughout our system," Schalchlin wrote in a letter to parents and guardians Thursday.

As of Thursday, there were 161 total positive cases among residents and patients, with 107 reported recoveries, according to new data the agency started releasing on state supported living centers and state hospitals earlier this month. “Fewer than 10” residents and patients have died from complications related to Covid-19, the state reported.

Seven of the 23 state facilities have at least one positive patient or resident, according to the latest data.

That data does not account for staff members who fall ill, and the state is still not releasing the names of facilities with coronavirus cases, leaving many family members in the dark about their loved ones. Reporting by ABC-7 and El Paso Matters first exposed the outbreak at the El Paso Psychiatric Center, of which some of the cases - and the one known death - involved employees at that facility.

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