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‘They could have avoided this’: El Paso Psychiatric Center employees say not enough done to prevent virus outbreak

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

EL PASO, Texas - Two employees at the El Paso Psychiatric Center tell ABC-7 that not enough was done to protect them and patients from contracting Covid-19 inside the state-run facility.

According to city health officials, a local ‘health facility’ has 42 positive cases within its wall, but the city has not named that facility, despite other major Texas cities identifying those types of facilities.

“I don’t believe there is any harm being had by any El Pasoan because that is not out there publicly as disclosed by the city,” Mayor Dee Margo said during a news conference on April 15.

El Paso Matters was the first to report the ‘health facility’ is actually the psychiatric center, after speaking to several anonymous sources.

ABC-7 later confirmed the center’s first death among an employee after receiving the email notification from another employee.

“We lost a coworker because of all this crap,” said one employee.

ABC-7 interviewed several employees, whose identities will not be revealed as they fear for their jobs.

They explained, the surge started after an employee who returned from vacation in Mexico wasn’t asked to quarantine, even after his travel companion tested positive.

“He told them directly that he had been with a person who tested positive for Covid and they told him, no, that he still had to report to work because he had already been on vacation.”

Emails obtained by ABC-7 show the facility superintendent notified employees on March 31 when they confirmed the first positive case among employees.

A second email confirmed a second case just a day later on April 1.

A third notification confirmed 10 employees had tested positive by April 6, just a week after the first case. But that’s when, employees say, notifications stopped.

“They would email us, but once this all got out of control, they stopped emailing us.”

None of the employees ABC-7 spoke with knew that the city had announced 42 cases.

But, they received one additional email from the facility superintendent, notifying them that Natividad Luevano, a coworker, had passed away.

The email stated, “Like me, you will be shocked and saddened. We don’t know much about the circumstances of his passing.”

On Monday, Luevano’s family told ABC-7 he was a coronavirus patient…and the city’s youngest reported fatality.

ABC-7 asked the Texas state Department of Health and Human Services, the department which runs the psychiatric center, why the emails the stopped.

A spokeswoman said, “We implemented a more formal communications process for the state hospital system to notify families and staff of a positive case and potential exposures to ensure we were being as transparent as possible and also adhering to privacy laws.”

HHS would not confirm the number of cases among employees or patients inside the facility, only saying they could confirm “at least one positive case.”

The two employees also said that personal protective equipment was not handed out until there were 10 cases in the center.

“Towards the end of March, the masks were kind of optional.”

“Those masks, we have to keep them for one week and after that, then they offered us the blue gowns.”

“We would have to clean them and the gowns.”

Both employees say it took even longer for patients to receive PPE.

“They started seeing all the employees wearing masks and full PPE eventually and they started asking questions.”

Health and Human Services says PPE guidelines were into effect March 2, a month before both employees say it became mandatory to use it at the psychiatric center.

The department could not confirm when patients received PPE.

But both employees say multiple patients were also released after testing positive.

“He’s gonna go to his family, maybe spread it to them…and oh my god, I just couldn’t believe that they are discharging patients that are tested positive.”

ABC-7 asked HHS to confirm whether patients had been released despite the outbreak in the facility. HHS said, “If a state hospital patient is psychiatrically stable and ready for discharge, the state hospital takes all precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when discharging the individual, including notifying the local health department of any discharge.”

The El Paso Psychiatric Center is an in-patient facility that treats children and adults with mental disorders and mental illness.

It is located in south-central El Paso, next to the El Paso Children’s Hospital and several other facilities. A state representative tells ABC-7 the center has a maximum capacity of 74 patients and employs more than 200 people.

The concerns shared by workers with ABC-7 came down to this one statement, “you always get that feeling of, they don’t quite care for us.”

Article Topic Follows: Health

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Trisha Garcia

Trisha Garcia is an ABC-7 producer.

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Stephanie Valle

Stephanie Valle co-anchors ABC-7 at 5, 6 and 10 weeknights.


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