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Positive COVID-19 cases continue to mount at Denton State Supported Living Center

Union organizer says dozens of employees have complained they fear getting sick and taking it home to their families.

DENTON, Texas — A total of 50 residents and 23 employees at the Denton State Supported Living Center have now tested positive for COVID-19, Denton County public health officials announced Tuesday.

As the numbers keep rising, Francisco Santillan, a labor organizer for the Texas State Employees Union, says he’s been hearing from dozens of terrified workers.

“They don't want to get sick,” he said. “They don't want to take this disease home to their loved ones.”

Santillan said he worked at the living center for 17 years before leaving to work for the employees union in early February. He said his former co-workers are telling him that they are not being provided with the proper personal protective equipment.

He choked up as he described his fear that friends and those who he once took care of may die.

“I have several staff that refuse to go back under these conditions because they don't have the proper equipment,” he said.

Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said in a statement that “protecting the health and safety of our residents and staff is always our top priority.

“Staff working with sick residents, or residents who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are being supplied the appropriate personal protective equipment...,” Mann wrote in an email. “This includes masks, face shield masks, N95 masks, gloves, gowns.”

She also wrote that all staff on campus are being supplied with face masks.

Santillan provided WFAA emails that were sent to the staff just prior to the outbreak becoming known.

At 12:41 p.m. on March 19, an infection preventionist at the living center sent out an email stating, “We were just informed today… that a resident who is currently @ the hospital is being tested for COVID-19. He has NOT been confirmed.”

Later that day, she sent another message: “There is another rumor going around campus and it is just making a lot of people more stressed and scared. Currently, we do not have any resident or staff confirmed with COVID-19,” the email said.

Santillan said workers out there told him that the living center downplayed the risk of COVID-19.

“They didn't want staff to talk about it,” Santillan said. “They still continued as business as usual.”

But later that same evening on March 19, living center officials were notified that one of their residents tested positive for COVID-19, according another email sent by the same infection preventionist.

On March 21, officials publicly announced that four residents had tested positive for COVID-19. That number has continued to grow almost daily.

Matt Richardson, the county’s public health director, told county commissioners Tuesday morning that more than 400 residents had been tested and that only a handful had yet to be tested.

“The staff is doing their best to assist those residents,” Richardson said.

He also said that about 100 employees at the highest risk had been tested. But he said that the county did not have enough supplies to test all of the living center’s 1,400 employees.

“The problem that we're having now is staff is being forced to resign when they refuse to go over to the quarantine home,” Santillan said.

He provided WFAA paperwork given to him by one employee.

In March 27 memo, the employee was notified that she was being temporarily reassigned.

The employee told Santillan in an email provided to WFAA that the unit she was being sent to was where residents who had been confirmed positive were being housed. She wrote she told the unit director that she was diabetic, had a blood clot on the brain and blood pressure issues.

“He insisted that I go to 504 or resign,” she wrote in the email. “It was like a threat even when I told him my health was at risk.”

The employee’s resignation letter, dated March 27, states that she was quitting because the temporary transfer is “detrimental to my health status.”

“She was bullied into writing her resignation,” Santillan said.

In an email, Mann, the HHSC spokeswoman, said that the employee “tendered her resignation of her own volition.”

“She was not in any way prompted or asked to resign,” the email said. “In fact, in cases where employees demonstrated underlying health conditions that could increase their risk of COVID-19, they were given assignments on other homes that would reduce their risk.

“As with others, we will attempt to work with her if she chooses to contact her supervisor and discuss here health concerns,” Mann wrote.

Santillan said another employee retired as of Tuesday because she was so scared for her safety and that of her family.

“She has a daughter with special needs at home,” he said. “She doesn’t want to take the disease home.”

He called on Gov. Greg Abbott and State Sen. Jane Nelson to visit the living center and see for themselves.

Santillan said many of the workers are low paid in a job that can be difficult in the best of times.

“The state school employees should be considered on the front line and should be getting hazardous pay for this,” he said. “We take care of the most vulnerable. We want the state to take care of us too so we can do our job properly.”

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