EL PASO, Texas -- As space at El Paso hospitals gets tighter, ABC-7 has learned patients infected with coronavirus are being sent to two local nursing homes: Mountain View Health and Rehabilitation and St. Giles Nursing and Rehabilitation.
Those facilities have set up special Covid units while at the same time, dealing with outbreaks of their own.
Sending infected patients to nursing homes for recovery is a practice once used in New York, but was reversed after critics say it contributed to a higher death toll within those facilities.
In an internal memo obtained by ABC-7, an administrator from St. Giles notified employees that the facility “will be accepting COVID patients from the hospital,” which an employee said went into effect on July 7.
Del Sol Medical Center is one of the local hospitals relying on these so-called “covid units” at nursing homes.
“We work with the health department, we have an infection preventionist, myself, I work with Dr. Ocaranza and his team at the health department specifically to ask them, is there an outbreak,” said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, the Chief Medical Officer at Las Palmas Del Sol hospital.
“If a facility has an outbreak, probably not the facility that we want to send people. You wouldn’t want your loved one there, I wouldn’t want my loved one there until that facility has its outbreak under control.”
In a statement provided to ABC-7 by a spokeswoman for the Hospitals of Providence, the network of campuses confirmed they also speak with the city before using any facility, adding, “Throughout each day, we coordinate our actions and plans with other hospital systems, the public health department and our elected leaders.”
However, the county judge brought up concerns about transparency within the city’s reporting of coronavirus cases. But Del Sol’s Dr. Alozie says they have to trust the data provided by the Department of Public Health.
“I make an assumption that our partners at the health department are transparent with us the same way we’ve been transparent with them,” he said.
ABC-7 obtained the information those facilities submitted to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). As of July 12, it shows 25 cases and 17 deaths at Mountain View, and 70 cases and 12 deaths at St. Giles.
But a St. Giles employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation tells ABC-7 as of last week, there have been at least 16 deaths there.
A public relations firm hired to represent Creative Solutions in Healthcare would not provide ABC-7 with current numbers on those outbreaks, citing the federal privacy law HIPAA.
ABC-7 asked Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the city and county health authority, if the number of deaths or cases is being communicated to the hospitals.
“It’s up to that nursing home to communicate that kind of information,” Ocaranza said in an online video interview for this story.
When ABC-7 asked if families were being notified of these outbreaks before their loved one is transferred to a facility like Mountain View or St. Giles, Dr. Ocaranza said that communication is up to hospital employees.
“They have their case managers, social workers that are in communication with family members when a transfer is going to be done,” he said. “They always keep that communication so family members know what’s the plan for that particular patient.”
Dr. Ocaranza said the Department of Public Health has always been concerned with at-risk groups, like those living in nursing homes, but didn’t comment on the concern directly related to the use of “Covid units.”
“That is why we deplore our education taskforce to those places, that’s why we started planning ahead of time because we need to be preventive and we need to be proactive,” he added.
Both facilities, Mountain View and St. Giles, as well as three others in the El Paso area, are owned by Creative Solutions in Healthcare. The Fort Worth-based company confirmed the policy outlined in the internal memo and provided ABC-7 with the following statement:
“Of the Creative Solutions in Healthcare facilities in El Paso, Mountain View Health and Rehabilitation Center and St. Giles Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are designated as cohort facilities that serve the area by accepting and treating COVID-19 positive patients. As such, these facilities are the only options in the El Paso area for referring hospitals or any facility with a COVID-positive patient requiring a skilled-nursing level of care. As previously stated, due to privacy laws and our responsibility to meet the expectations of those we serve, we must defer to local, state and federal authorities for the distribution of specific information regarding the numbers of COVID-19 cases at these facilities.
"While the majority of our COVID-19 positive patients recover and are released from our care, due to the current community surge in COVID-19 cases, we continue to receive referrals from other nursing facilities and hospitals across El Paso County. All patients admitted to either Mountain View or St. Giles and their families receive full disclosure of the facilities' cohort status and its protocols for managing infection control. Please see the attached document for an overview of these protocols.
"We are grateful for the trust of our patients and their families and as always, it is their health and well being that is our utmost priority. We are also deeply grateful for the ongoing commitment of our dedicated staff which continues to serve the needs of our community around the clock while balancing the ever present needs of their own in these challenging and unprecedented times.”
The Texas State Department of Health and Human Services confirmed to local news agency El Paso Matters in June that the state was investigating all five facilities in El Paso owned by Creative Solutions in Healthcare, but didn't disclose what prompted the investigations.
The state department says there are 32 total investigations into those five facilities since the coronavirus outbreak in El Paso began. ABC-7 has filed a request for a copy of the investigations, but has not yet received them.