Texas taps federal funds to help nursing homes buy equipment to expand COVID-era visits

AUSTIN — State officials announced Friday they will help nursing homes tap $3.5 million in federal funds to buy equipment that would allow more visitors during the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting Monday, certified nursing homes in Texas can apply for up to $3,000 each toward purchasing plexiglass barriers for expanded indoor visits and tents to accommodate more safe gatherings outdoors, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Health and Human Services Commission announced.

Texas has 1,213 such homes, said commission spokeswoman Christine Mann.

The $3.5 million is part of a bigger pool of funds the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services took in after slapping fines on nursing homes that violate federal rules, officials said.

The move comes a few weeks after Abbott announced plans – which took effect Sept. 24 – for up to two “essential caregivers” to resume indoor visits, provided they’ve tested negative for COVID-19 in the last two weeks. Those visits are allowed without a plexiglass divider, as the caregivers do things such as clean hearing aids.

But the state is still requiring relatives and visitors who are not essential caregivers to be separated from the resident at all times by a plexiglass barrier.

Such visits are only allowed in a county with a COVID-19 positivity rate of 10% or less.

Cindy Goleman walks up to the window of her mother Peggy White from outside the window at The Pavilion at Creekwood, a healthcare and rehabilitation center in Mansfield, Texas on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Peggy White had a stroke in late January. Cindy Goleman is one of those people with parents and/or loved ones in nursing homes, hospitals or skilled healthcare facilities who can't visit in person. Goleman visits by looking through the window as she talks to her on the phone. (Vernon Bryant/The Dallas Morning News)

The head of a leading nursing home trade group welcomed the state-administered federal stipends, saying “providers understand the importance” of resuming visits.

“Everyone wants to see this work,” said Kevin Warren, president of the Texas Health Care Association.

But one advocate of more rapidly expanded family visits, Mary Nichols of Forney, the state needs to stop foot-dragging by some nursing homes on allowing designated caregiver visits.

“If a facility gets $3,000, I hope they spend it all on tents — because I don’t approve of the plexiglass barriers,” said Nichols, who said the Texas Caregivers for Compromise group she launched in July now has 3,000 members.

For residents with cognitive decline, visits in plexiglass booths can increase, not decrease, agitation and anxiety, she explained.

Abbott’s said the goal of the new funding is to “help keep nursing facility residents and their families safe while ensuring that residents can be with their loved ones.”

More than 29,000 Texas nursing home residents have contracted the virus, and 4,032 of them have died. As of Friday, about 2,140 residents had active cases of COVID-19, at 514 different facilities, according to self-reported data compiled by the commission.

Dr. Dongyoung Shin creates a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) plate of destroyed samples of the COVID-19 virus at the bioterrorism laboratory, which is part of the CDC's Laboratory Response Network, at the Dallas County Health and Human Services building in Dallas on Monday, April 7, 2020. This lab has a 24-hour turnaround time for analyzing COVID-19 test kits for high-contact individuals, such as nursing homes residents, medical staff and first responders. Since April, nearly 100 long-term care facilities in Dallas County have reported COVID-19 infections and deaths. (Lynda M. Gonzalez/The Dallas Morning News)