Family confirms COVID-19 related death of state hospital employee; facility at emergency staffing level

Nursing staff says protocols on handling COVID-19 positive residents, people showing symptoms is unclear

SAN ANTONIO – The family of a longtime nursing assistant at the San Antonio State Hospital confirmed this week that she died of COVID-19 complications.

Yolanda Huron would have celebrated her 63rd birthday on Sunday.

Hospital superintendent Robert Arizpe announced Huron’s death in an email to employees earlier this week that was later obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders, but hospital and state health department officials have refused to confirm other details about Huron’s passing to KSAT.

‘I’m angry:’ Second worker at SA nursing home with 15 COVID-19 deaths voices concerns about facility’s response

Her death comes as multiple employees at the psychiatric hospital southeast of downtown have said procedures on how to handle residents, many of whom are not wearing masks, have not been clearly laid out by administration.

“My biggest concern is that they don’t have a direct protocol on what we’re supposed to do if and when we do have patients that test positive or have symptoms for the virus,” said a psychiatric nursing assistant, who asked that KSAT conceal their voice and identity and call them “Toni” because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Toni said during a recent shift, long after San Antonio was experiencing its aggressive surge in COVID-19 cases, only five of the 30 patients they dealt with wore a mask.

“Some of them don’t understand boundaries. Some of them, they do not care to wear a mask even if they are given the option to,” the nursing assistant said.

An email sent by the hospital’s chief nurse executive last week confirmed the COVID-19 resurgence forced nursing employees into an emergency staffing level.

Vacation days have been suspended and education leave for staff has been put on hold during the current “staffing crisis,” the email states.

State and hospital officials have not said how many staff members and residents have contracted the virus at the facility.

Data compiled by Texas Health and Human Services shows that as of June 29, there were more than 240 COVID-19 cases among its patients and residents at state supported living centers and state hospitals.

A majority of those residents have recovered from the virus, records show.

A state spokesperson, however, said via email this week she could confirm only one case at the San Antonio State Hospital, citing the need to get consent from all individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 to provide total case count for any specific facility.

An email sent from Arizpe to hospital staff indicates that mass testing led to “positive results on a number of individuals,” but it also does not indicate how many cases are at the hospital.

Christine Mann, the spokesperson for the Texas Health & Human Services Commission, released the following statement regarding the state hospital’s response to the pandemic:

We’ve activated the hospital’s COVID-19 response plan, which was developed based upon CDC and DSHS guidance. We’re using dedicated spaces for any patient recovering from COVID-19 and ensuring they receive the care they need in a manner safe for them, other patients and staff. Any patients who may have had exposure are isolated for monitoring. The hospital also has a dedicated area to serve any symptomatic patients. Staff are notified as soon as possible of a positive case within a facility. We also work to notify family members, with permission of patients.

At our state hospitals all staff on campus wear face masks. Staff working directly with COVID-19 positive patients are dedicated to treating only those patients, wearing full personal protective equipment and are following all CDC guidelines to protect their safety and prevent spread. This includes face shield masks, N95 masks, gloves, and gowns. Additionally, we’re continuing to educate and train staff on infection control procedures.

On March 5, San Antonio State Hospital began travel screening all staff on whether they had visited a country identified by the CDC as high risk or whether they had contact with someone who had. Visitation restrictions to our state hospitals were implemented on March 13. We continue to screen all employees for fever and respiratory illness prior to entrance into the facility. Temperature checks on staff and essential visitors before entry to San Antonio State Hospital began on March 16 and remain in place. Any person with a fever or unexplained signs of respiratory illness is not allowed entrance to the hospital.

We are extremely grateful for the commitment and dedication of our staff to caring for our patients, especially during this challenging time. They are providing an outstanding service to Texas. Our commitment to patients and staff is to provide the best care possible and the safest possible working environment, at all times under any circumstances. This is a rapidly evolving situation and we will continue adapting our policies and procedures as necessary.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.