It was over a week ago when employees and family members began becoming concerned about the coronavirus situation at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center. As we first reported earlier in the week, there have been now as many as 50 confirmed cases of coronavirus among the estimated 182 resident population. As tragic as that is in itself, those charged with caring for those who call the center home are being left at serious risk and often without proper protection.
Earlier in the week Melissa Gongaware, Director of the facility provided lawmakers with a briefing as to what was happening at the center. In response to their questions Gongaware led them to believe that things were just fine—but staff members there believe that Gongoware intentionally mislead officials into believing that the situation was less than extremely critical.
Staff there confirm that Gongaware sent out a directive to inform families that there was only one lone case of coronavirus there at the facility even though they knew that there was a rapidly spreading breakout that would eventually take over the entire facility. And that is exactly what employees say has happened.
“The specialized housing units are overflowing,” one high level staff member told us on Saturday. “We are sending sick residents back to their units for as much as three hours before we can find a place for them.”
“They told us on Friday that this could be the worst week yet,” the staff told us. “They are concerned that we won’t have enough staff to handle it.”
Staff members told us that other staffers with professional licenses are being told to prepare to begin working in housing units early next week if and when the situation continues to deteriorate at the facility. Everybody appears to be going on high alert.
Some residents were sent to the hospital this week for further treatment. When time came for some of them to return to the living center, senior staffers said that is when the problem started.
“We had to call Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline and beg them to hold the patients until we could find a place for them,” the staff said. “That is how bad it is.”
And that places a strain on a hospital system that is already becoming strained and health officials are looking for ways to manage their own situation.
The senior level staff member also said that on Friday, the Director informed them that the upcoming week would likely be “one of the worst” that they have seen yet, as the facility is now reporting coronavirus cases on each of the three housing units at the facility.
Senior staff members have pointed out how executive management has repeatedly neglected to request assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services Commission which is charged with overseeing and operating the system.
“To our credit we do have a plan in place,” the Senior Staffer said. “But it isn’t using it.”
That plan would call for outside assistance from other HHSC facilities around the state. But the staffers say that finding people to come in and risk their lives at a facility that is plagued with mismanagement and danger is easier said than done.
“At Denton they had National Guard tents and resources on-site to help,” the staffer said. “We don’t have that here because she won’t tell them that we need it.”
Needing it is an understatement. On Saturday, we also spoke with employees who have repeatedly contacted their ombudsman for help. Administration claims that they are being provided N95 masks and other protective devices that are rated to protect against the dangerous coronavirus. But employees say that they are mostly being provided “regular surgical masks and flimsy plastic face shields” to protect them.
“I work there and I don’t even want to go to work because it is so dangerous,” another provider there at the facility told us. “Management is putting our residents and our staff at risk and I am sick of it.”
“A lot of these employees make little more than minimum wage and they didn’t sign up for this,” the senior staff told us. “You can’t blame them.”
When asked what more could be done all of the employees there at the facility say that all she has to do is ask for help.
We reached out for an answer from Gongaware, who records show has worked for the state at least 8 years and makes $130,000 per year from taxpayers. She has yet to respond to our request for comment on the situation.
Gongaware is no stranger to controversy. Records show that she came to the Corpus Christi State Living Center after transferring in from the El Paso State Living Center where families of residents and and independent observers accused her and others of neglect and misconduct.
“We have all had serious concerns about her,” another employee said on Saturday. “She frequently asks us to alter documents and make false statements to families in order to keep them from questioning her. She is determined that she is going to keep her job at any cost possible.”
Senior Staffers at the facility say that they were also told by Gongaware to not speak with the media and to not even acknowledge the existence of a Special Report that the Southside Light News published on Thursday.
“Once that report hit their desks they went into full panic mode,” staffers said. “We were told to pretend that it doesn’t even exist.”
We were also informed by senior staffers that many of the residents who require 1 on 1 observation are being left alone at the facility. Staffers said that they are concerned that the staffing situation is as critical as it was when Sean Yates, a resident of the facility was able to leave the facility and was found days later with a broken nose floating in Corpus Christi Bay. The staff members that we spoke with are concerned that with staffing currently so low as it is and with many becoming sick or symptomatic, that something like that could happen again.
Most of the residents at the facility are there by order of the court and suffer from a variety of disabilities.
Members of the public are also speaking out.
“I know family members who work there and I am hearing these same stories,” says Angela Rodriguez of Corpus Christi. “I fear for her life every single time she goes to work and she doesn’t make anything.”
Rodriguez has a daughter who works at the facility. “I mean it is a way to get into the door but it is not worth your life.”
Others like Manuel Sanchez, who lives directly behind the facility says that he feels concern himself.
“I worry that this is going to get even more into the community because they cannot stop it,” Sanchez said on Saturday. “My daughter-in-law works there and I pray that she doesn’t end up giving it to my grandson. She tells me about how bad it is.”
With the public and staff members demanding action there is concern that enough is not being done to protect some of our most vulnerable residents, those that serve them and the surrounding population.
We have requested all documents concerning the outbreak from the Health and Human Services Commission. We have also reached out to Senator Lois Kolkhorst who heads up the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services as well as Vice-Chair Senator Charles Perry. We are told that each of them are looking into the situation.