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Travis County approves nursing home emergency staffing

Friday, May 15, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

People who live or work in nursing homes and senior living centers are some of the hardest hit by Covid-19. Austin Public Health has said both staff and residents are particularly vulnerable to the virus with 17 percent of the total cases in Travis County reported in these facilities as of May 12.

To help alleviate the “concerning trends” and allow staff exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19 to isolate from facility residents, the Travis County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a contract at its Tuesday meeting that bypasses the county’s competitive procurement process and engages Angel Staffing Inc. to provide staff for Covid-19 crisis response and support in nursing homes. Angel Staffing is a large agency that supports the Texas Department of State Health Services with medical support missions. The requested emergency staffing personnel ranges from nursing aides to cooks.

With the duration of the pandemic still undetermined, there is no definite end date for the contract or total expenditure amount. There will be a daily max spend of $15,000. In an email, the county’s chief emergency management coordinator, Eric Carter, explained that funding for this contract will go through the county’s Covid-19 disaster fund for future reimbursement.

Commissioners, however, suggested that county staff maintain an accounting of expenditures related to this contract and submit it to the state for reimbursement from its portion of federally allocated disaster relief dollars.

“We are augmenting state strike teams with a locally funded strike team,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “I just want everyone to know we are taking on responsibilities of the state.”

The state provides supplies and personnel assistance to counties through its State of Texas Assistance Requests (STAR) program. However, requests from around the state are remaining unfulfilled leaving Travis County to fund its own supplemental staffing in nursing homes. Eckhardt noted that the Texas Health and Human Services Commission has remained underfunded for years and she was expecting Travis County to foot the bill for emergency staffing in nursing homes.

Carter said the county originally requested four strike teams from the state for emergency staffing at nursing homes. Travis County received 2.5 teams for a total of 10 days. With the approval of this locally funded staffing contract, Carter said he expects the county to have fully assumed all emergency nursing home staffing support by May 15.

“Obviously this is an important function,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “But if (the state is) not providing the staffing that’s necessary, they’re not doing their job.”

When the state originally sent in emergency strike teams to staff facilities where staff members had fallen ill, Carter said the cost ranged from $12,000 to $13,000 per day for a 17-person team. Now, he said, that team size has shrunk along with the training period. As a result, the daily cost per strike team is under $3,000.

Eckhardt congratulated county staff for effectively reducing costs. “Sometimes we can do it faster, cheaper and more effectively in the field,” she said.

In the staffing contract with Angel Staffing, teams will be contracted for up to 10 days with the option to extend the stay.

Austin Public Health has said that the isolation period for people who have contracted or come into contact with Covid-19 is 14 days.

County commissioners requested ongoing updates on the status of the nursing home strike team contract.

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