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Coronavirus: City of Austin orders nursing homes, assisted living facilities to secure access

Facilities have been ordered to screen employees, volunteers and visitors for symptoms of fever prior to entering.

AUSTIN, Texas — The Austin-Travis County interim health authority has issued orders to secure long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities from the threat of COVID-19 (coronavirus).

On Wednesday, Dr. Mark Escott said those facilities have been ordered to secure access and screen employees, volunteers and visitors for symptoms of fever prior to entering.

Any patients or staff with unexplained fever-related illnesses must report immediately to Austin Public Health, Dr. Escott said.

Dr. Escott said the new rules were implemented to help mitigate the risk and spread of the virus among Austin’s most vulnerable populations. He said the fatality rate so far has been highest for those over 60 – as high as 20% for elderly patients.

“As we’ve seen in Seattle, it can be devastating if this disease gets into a facility like a nursing home or like an assisted living facility,” he said.

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Over the coming days, Austin Public Health is expected to issue additional orders for different facilities to escalate the city’s response to the virus, Dr. Escott said.

Starting on Wednesday, the orders are mandatory for more than 300 facilities. The number of people over 70 years old in Austin-Travis County is estimated to be 80,000, or 6% of the population.

The control order includes several specified actions:

  • “Help Prevent Disease” signage provided by Austin Public Health must be displayed prominently in the facility.
  • Hand sanitizer must be available and supplied to employees, patients, visitors and volunteers.
  • The facility must temperature check all employees, patients, visitors and volunteers prior to entry to the facility.
  • The facility may not admit any individual to the facility with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above.
  • Any unexplained febrile illness (≥100.4 degrees) of facility employees, patients, visitors or volunteers must be reported to the Austin Public Health epidemiologist on call as soon as possible.

The order does not impact City of Austin senior centers and other public facilities servicing adults over 50 at this time, the City said.

The World Health Organization classified the spread of COVID-19 as a pandemic, with more than 125,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 4,500 deaths. There have been at least 1,220 cases in the U.S., with 37 deaths, 29 of those in Washington state.

Austin Public Health is reminding the public of the following guidelines to help prevent the spread of coronavirus:

  • Wash your hands
  • Cover sneezes and coughs with a bent elbow or tissue
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home when you’re sick
  • Don’t visit a loved one in a nursing home if you are experiencing symptoms. If you are a caretaker, be sure to establish a plan in the event you are sick.

KVUE's Pattrik Perez visited Tech Ridge Oaks, an assisted living and memory care facility in northeast Austin on Wednesday. Their staff was already screening people before the city's announcement.

"We feel the need to take extra precautions to protect our residents, and we are trying really hard to educate our residents and our family members why we're taking these precautions," said Misty Miller, Civitas Senior Living's chief operating officer.

As part of the facility's check-in process, visitors and patients must have their temperature checked and answer travel- and health-related questions.

If the person has a fever or fails any portion of the questionnaire, the staff will not let the person into the community.

"We are asking people not to visit if they have a temperature or if they're showing anything. We are trying to really limit visitors and process social distancing so we can try to avoid our residents getting sick," Miller said.

If there is a confirmed case of the coronavirus in Travis County or an adjacent county, Miller said her company would consider prohibiting visitors at its locations. Staff is already helping patients use tools like FaceTime.

More information can be found on the City of Austin COVID-19 website.

As of Wednesday, no cases of the virus have been confirmed in the Austin area.

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