Matt Pierce Briscoe
The first case of coronavirus at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center (CCSSLC) was reported back on June 24, 2020. From there, the situation spiraled out of control amid what current and recently departed staff members report as a severely mismanaged crisis.
In an email sent out to staff members n June 24, Director Melissa Gongaware told them that all staff were to immediately begin wearing face masks. However, staff there continue to claim that they were not provided proper protective equipment for days, many are saying that they still do not have access to it.
Officially, Senior level employees maintain that Director Gongaware claimed that at the time there was only one single case of coronavirus at the facility. Records obtained by the Southside Light and statements from employees say that too is blatantly false.
“At the time we had at least 4-5 positive residents with many more that had fever,” one current member of the medical staff there told us on Monday. “She minimized the number. I had learned of the positive cases the day before from a peer who felt we should know.”
We reached out to State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and State Representative Todd Hunter for answers. Late Monday afternoon, Senator Hinojosa confirmed that there was a conference call with Department of Health and Human Services officials and that there was a “top-down” approach to trying to get answers. But those answers will likely be very hard to come by because of all the apparently blatant disregard for transparency by local and state level managers.
Former employee Robert Quinones was terminated for not reporting to work after exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.
“That for the simple fact I lost my job because they did not give me the proper ppe and I still felt sick after my 14-day quarantine,
Quinones said. “My test results were unclear (at the time) but was still diagnosed with acute upper respiratory infection and did not want to spread what I had to the clients with low immune systems was terminated by email.”
Quinones was still exhibiting signs of what could have been coronavirus and he was not willing to take the chance on getting those that genuinely cared for sick. Quinones was fired even though there was a protocol in place for staff members who exhibited symptoms of coronavirus.
“She (Gongaware) definitely puts staff in harm’s way,” Quinones says. “The only time she comes out of her office is when the state comes down to visit and God-forbid a client trying talk to her she’s forever in a ‘meeting.’”
Quinones is not alone. Even though some staff members back then tested negative, physicians still suggested that they self-quarantine for a period and take proper precautions. Local managers of the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center were not buying that either.
Employees say that after they had paid for the testing themselves or used their insurance they were still forced by order from Gongaware to return to work.
“The facility isn’t accepting these from doctors either,” the fiancé of of employee said after providing documentation of their claim. “My fiancé works there and has flu like symptoms for the reason going to premier doctor ordered him out til the 17th. He told his supervisor and she didn’t accept it.”
Their reasoning? “Everyone is getting this,” they were told.
On Tuesday, The Southside Light received confirmation that there were 21 new cases of Covid-19 among residents at the facility, taking the new number of reported cases among residents to 68.
On Monday, local health officials reported to the Corpus Christi Caller Times that there was only 37 reported cases among residents. That number was later confirmed to be inaccurate and staff there with knowledge of the situation say that Gongaware and her direct staff intentionally mislead local health officials in an attempt to downplay the severity of the situation—just like what happened back on June 24 when the initial outbreak began to occur.
Employees that we talked to are scared that they are going to end up becoming infected with coronavirus themselves and that the lack of personal protective equipment is more than concerning.
Monday evening, The Southside Light learned that at least one nurse at the facility has tested positive for coronavirus and that because the medical staffing situation is so bad there, the nurse continued to work on the COVID-19 isolation wing even after presenting with symptoms.
State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, State Representative Todd Hunter and others were allowed to review the recorded statement from the nurse who had knowledge of the situation.
“Yes, I am worried that we are going to catch it and I am worried for my patients because we just do not have enough nursing staff to handle this situation,” one nurse that we spoke with told us Monday night. “I mean just to take care of these residents if I get it I will just have to keep coming to work because we do not have the nursing staff to handle it.”
Department of Health and Human Services officials maintain that the facility has 800 staff members and that the number is well adequate to handle any outbreak. However, only a very small portion of those staff members are licensed medical professionals who can provide nursing level staff. That number the nursing staff is very misleading.
“We actually have about 800 employees and that number consist of hundreds of professional and licensed workers, administrative assistants, maintenance, grounds keepers, custodians, laundry, central receiving, pharmacy, psychiatry, HAB therapies, nurses, etc.,” one Senior Staff member clarified for us on Monday. “We actually only have a few hundred direct care staff.”
“Our facility saying we have 800 staff is extremely misleading,” the Senior Level Staffer said.
Part of the problem is that there are layers of protective mechanisms in place that protect facility directors and mid to upper level Commission staff.
Persons within HHSC confirm that Melissa Gongaware is from the Austin area and has deep connections with Senior level management who have taken a personal interest in her success as a director, despite having had major incidents at places such as the El Paso State Supported Living Center and another facility in Austin. Scott Schalchlin, an Associate Commissioner of the agency has reportedly continually pressed for Gongaware to retain her status and position within the agency despite knowing of the severe allegations and instances of misconduct.
Our initial reporting is reportedly outraged both Gongaware and Schalchiln. Enough so that friends of Schalachiln and of Gongaware began sending and posting defensive comments on behalf of their friends. When confronted by the press and the public, they refused to respond.
“I can tell you that the article had her so angry, that she had our assistant director come in during the weekend to figure out our staffing needs for the upcoming week,” the Senior Level staff told us on Monday. “I also believe she is somewhat nervous because she is fully aware of the Public Information Act. But I’m sure she’ll find a way to delete the documents.”
On Monday, The Southside Light requested documents, emails, text message and all internal communications between Schalchiln and Gongaware for the past 6 weeks regarding the coronavirus response and the situation at the facility. Barring any potential legal wrangling, those should be available within ten days.
“I’ve never seen anyone as protected as Gongaware is,” the Senior Level local staffer told us on Monday.
The debate as to potential misconduct and mismanagement that likely has led to a significant outbreak could be a matter for a later date if and when hearings actually take place. The real question is what is going on here and how do the staff and families get the answers that they need?
Nurses that we spoke with on Monday and Tuesday said that they are increasingly concerned with the infection control practices at the facility. We were provided confidential documentation and internal communications which were also forwarded to lawmakers for their review and they are concerned and now wanting answers and action from Commissioner Phil Wilson.
Just Tuesday morning, a medical worker at the facility notified us that there were N95 industrial (non-medical rated) masks available for use. However, those masks are not being provided to staff members who are already potentially infected and are being kept behind lock and key.
The problems at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center are a signal of a much larger statewide problem that appears to start with mismanagement from the mid-levels and an internal peer protective mechanism that even policy makers agree must be immediately dealt with and it obviously starts with busting up obvious problems like these.
Turnover is extremely high statewide. It has been this way for a couple years. It has been such a problem that state office approved a state wide pay raise for direct care staff as an incentive for them to stay or apply to work.
At the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Center, specifically, many of the staff say that prior to the coronavirus outbreak, other staff have quit for variable reasons. For a while, staff were quitting because they were fearful for their safety. The Center is home to a few very aggressive individuals that will create makeshift weapons and some of the staff have been seriously injured.
“We began having positive cases late June. We didn’t get face shields till 7/2,” another member of the medical staff said who was in fear of losing her job but felt like the story had to be told. “I’ve sent some emails. Please don’t share my identity. I’d like to keep fighting for these people as long as I can.”
And that is the overall mentality of the frontline workers there at the Corpus Christi State Supported Living Facility who are trying their best to care for what Governor Abbott recognizes as some of “our state’s most vulnerable residents.” Because of the seriousness of the situation, the safety, security and well-being of 188 of those residents is now a serious point of concern.