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El Paso Psychiatric Center faces COVID-19 outbreak


UPDATE: El Paso health officials said on Wednesday, April 15, that the number of people infected at an El Paso health-care facility had grown to 32 from the 11 originally reported. The officials again wouldn’t identify the facility.

Eleven people being treated at or working at the El Paso Psychiatric Center have tested positive for COVID-19, sources familiar with the situation have told El Paso Matters.

Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso’s city-county health authority, said in a news conference Thursday that 11 cases of COVID-19 — about 5 percent of El Paso’s 225 total cases — were tied to a health-care facility that he declined to identify. But multiple health-care and legal sources, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, identified the facility as the El Paso Psychiatric Center, 4615 Alameda.

Both staff and patients at the center were infected, the sources said, although a precise breakdown wasn’t immediately available. 

The El Paso Psychiatric Center, operated by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, provides in-patient services for up to 74 adults, according to a 2016 report by the Legislative Budget Board.

Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman Christine Mann said the agency was legally prohibited from releasing personal health information of staff and patients. But she did talk generally about how the agency is responding to COVID-19 infections in its facilities.

“In any facility in which a patient tests positive for COVID-19, all staff wear face masks. Additionally, we’re continuing to educate and train staff on infection control procedures and the proper use of (personal protective equipment). Staff working with COVID-19 positive patients are dedicated to treating only those patients, using the appropriate personal protective equipment and are following all CDC guidelines to protect their safety and prevent spread,” Mann said on Friday. 

Explaining 79905 ZIP code’s high infection rate

The Psychiatric Center is in the 79905 ZIP code, which has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in El Paso County, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of El Paso Department of Public Health data. The El Paso Psychiatric Center appears to accounts for many of the 15 positive tests in that ZIP code as of Thursday.

Other states and localities have disclosed the names of health-care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks. When asked how he justified not identifying a health-care facility involved in the El Paso COVID-19 cluster, Ocaranza cited past practice for the El Paso Department of Public Health.

“It has been a policy of the health department not to release names of institutions, whether it is where patients get admitted or had other health department investigations. We release as much information as possible to keep the public informed but at the same time keep confidentiality of all parties involved,” he said.

People with mental illness at high risk

People with mental illness are particularly vulnerable in the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Benjamin Druss, a psychiatrist with the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, said in an April 3 article for JAMA Psychiatry.

“High rates of smoking in this population may raise the risk of infection and confer a worse prognosis among those who develop the illness. Residential instability and homelessness can raise the risk of infection and make it harder to identify, follow up, and treat those who are infected,” Druss said.

He said local communities and states to quickly develop plans to protect people in  mental health centers and psychiatric hospitals. 

“These facilities have limited capacity to screen for or treat medical conditions, and few have existing relationships with local or state public health agencies. It is critical for these organizations to develop continuity-of-operations plans to ensure that they can maintain vital functions in the face of staff illnesses or shortages of psychotropic medications,” Druss wrote.

“Clinics will need protocols for identifying and referring patients at risk for infection and self-quarantine strategies for clinicians who develop symptoms of the illness. Adequate environmental protections including well-ventilated spaces, easy access to handwashing, and personal protective equipment should be available,” he said.

Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. He spent most of his career at the El Paso Times, serving in a variety of leadership roles. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership, the James Madison Award from the Texas Freedom of Information Foundation, the Jack Douglas Award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors and the Frank W. Mayborn Award for Community Leadership from the Texas Press Association. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award from the National Press Association. As a freelance journalist, Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on the border by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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