Austin nursing home confronts COVID-19 outbreak

Austin Oasis has less than 200 residents, but more than 100 positive cases

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Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago

More than 100 people have been infected with coronavirus at an Austin nursing home and eight people have died, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Austin Oasis is a residential care center that provides long-term nursing for patients in hospice, rehabilitation, memory care and psychiatric care. The nursing home has less than 200 residents, but the outbreak has infected at least 101 of their patients and staffers.

The high number of cases reflects the nursing home's rigorous testing, Austin Oasis officials said in a statement. In early June, Austin Oasis asked the Illinois Department of Public Health to test all patients and staff members at the care center.

All of those who have tested positive are being treated in a special recovery unit to prevent more infections, nursing home officials said. In accordance with state guidelines, Austin Oasis has discontinued visits and communal activities while increasing access to personal protective equipment.

The nursing home also sent a letter to family members notifying them about the expanded testing. The letter said that the majority of positive test results came from patients who were asymptomatic.

"Austin Oasis ensures that the internal and IDPH guidelines and protocols are being followed by constant monitoring and rounding in the facility.  Our main focus right now is protecting our residents and staff from COVID-19," the statement said.

According to state data, more than half of all COVID-19 deaths are linked to long-term care centers. Nursing home patients are often elderly or have comorbidities that make them susceptible to developing severe complications when infected.

As of June 12, at least 3,433 COVID-19 deaths were linked to nursing homes. The most recent data shows that 6,398 have died from the pandemic statewide.

SEIU Healthcare, a union representing caregivers, said the nursing home industry at-large is to blame for the huge number of cases and deaths among patients and staffers at residential care centers. The industry is largely for-profit, and private nursing homes are often understaffed, rarely compensate nurses with hazard pay and cut corners on personal protective equipment and testing to save money.

"This industry must be held accountable for their inept response to this tragedy because they continue to put profits above the lives of our residents and workers," union officials said in a statement.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, who represents the 8th district where Austin Oasis is located, said nursing homes too often put patients and nurses at risk in the name of profit.

"These people are negligent in their duty," Ford said. "I know there are groups of high-risk people and they don't have their cases like that."

Ford said the situation at many private nursing homes has escalated because of a lack of oversight by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the licensing agencies that should be regulating the care centers. The state has pushed testing and PPE at long-term care centers, but outbreaks have remained difficult to control.

"These are businesses that these people are treating individuals there as a dollar, and they're not treating them as humans," Ford said. "Families rely on the state to protect those individuals."

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago. Read more of his coverage at blockclubchicago.org.

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