Emily Foxhall , Taylor Goldenstein and Jordan Rubio
HOUSTON — Firefighters and paramedics across Texas have been tapped to help with coronavirus testing in nursing homes, as state and local officials work through how to meet Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to test more than 200,000 residents and staff.
Fire departments statewide are being asked to help with facility inspections and on-site testing, as part of a multi-agency effort, according to a Texas Department of State Health Services email shared with Hearst Newspapers, offering detail on the state’s plan.
Abbott announced Monday that state agencies would begin outlining how to conduct testing in all nursing homes following White House recommendations. But he did not offer details on how the state planned to carry out the massive undertaking.
It took two months for the state to test 590,000 residents, though a national scarcity of testing materials slowed the effort. Now firefighters are mobilizing to administer 230,000 tests in two weeks.
The federal government is sending as many as 750,000 test kits to the state, said Darrell Pile, chief executive officer of the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, which was encouraging its partner EMS agencies to identify staff to help the testing teams.
“It is daunting,” Pile said. “However we’re very mature, seasoned emergency providers who have thought about these situations … We’re all ready and willing to evolve and go beyond our normal duties to help.”
In letters to fire departments Wednesday, the state cleared fire personnel to enter the facilities. Letters to the facilities said they would be contacted “very soon” by a testing team that could include first responders or the state national guard.
Local officials were figuring out Thursday exactly how this testing might work, pushing for further clarification from the state about its broad demands.
Firefighters are “proud to be on the frontlines on the pandemic response,” Texas State Association of Fire Fighters President John Riddle wrote in a statement, but Riddle questioned whether all had access to needed tests and training, and he urged the state to clarify response protocols.
“No matter what, we’ll be there when the call comes in,” Riddle wrote. “We just want to ensure we can deliver excellent service as safely as possible.”
Even with visitor restrictions and employee screenings in place, an alarming number of nursing homes residents have died. As of Wednesday, nearly 38 percent of deaths in Texas related to coronavirus were nursing home residents. Almost a quarter of licensed nursing homes had at least one case.
The ability of nursing homes to test — an effort that can help prevent asymptomatic employees from spreading the illness — so far has seemed “to be a mixed bag,” said Amanda Fredriksen, associate state director for advocacy and outreach at AARP Texas.
“We’ve been talking to counties and cities, and there’s a fair bit of variability about how accessible tests are and also their procedures for getting those tests processed,” Fredriksen said.
Fredriksen said it will be important that test results are returned fairly quickly, as well as that tests are repeated.
In Harris County, where a team has already been testing in long-term care facilities, fire departments and paramedics agreed to help with facility assessments.
The dozens of departments would contribute as they felt comfortable in evaluating nursing homes’ policies and preparedness, said Mike Mulligan, executive board president of the Harris County Firefighters Association.
Firefighters already plan for handling fires in such facilities, Mulligan said, so he considered this pre-planning with a medical twist.
“This is an evolving situation,” he said. “Everybody that’s working on this is really just trying to be sure that we’re protecting all of the citizens that we’re responsible for to the best of our ability.”
In Montgomery County, hospital district paramedics have been testing in a handful of nursing homes that wanted it and — as part of an existing statewide initiative — testing in high-risk regional facilities, the district’s EMS chief James Campbell said.
Firefighters in the county were already in touch about how they could support the paramedics doing this work.
“We want to be able to help anytime that we’re called upon by the state,” Campbell said. “We’re trained. We’re ready.”
In counties without a paid fire department, the state military, as well as state emergency medical teams, will have to fill the gap. Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta said he expects the Texas National Guard to do most of its nursing home testing.
Still, the county may be in better shape than others because of recent testing — Sebesta said initial information he’d received showed that the state will not require testing for those that have already done so in the last 30 days.
In Houston, firefighters awaited instructions from the city on updated testing protocols, said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.
“In the end, nothing’s changed with Houston firefighters and paramedics — we’re always ready to help the residents and staff of nursing homes,” he said. “If we’re asked to do more for them, we’ll gladly be there to help.”
Details were shaking out, too, in other counties: “Plans are evolving,” wrote Ashley Tompkins, spokesperson for the Galveston County Health District. Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George said in a statement they were “working 24/7 on establishing this Strike Team to meet this goal.”
With 161 nursing homes in the eight-county Houston region, the clock was ticking.
©2020 the Houston Chronicle