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Conflicting accounts from DSSLC: Center expresses confidence, while staff share fears

Conflicting accounts about personal protective equipment have surrounded the COVID-19 outbreak at the Denton State Supported Living Center — with some staff expressing continuing concerns about their personal safety.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission says the center is following proper guidelines with equipment, social distancing and limiting access between the center’s homes, but some staffers say they lack equipment and are being required to work in homes that have been exposed to coronavirus.

Staff at the center first expressed concern about a coronavirus outbreak in the facility before the first confirmed case in Denton County was announced. That concern grew stronger when, on March 19, an email was sent out informing staff that a resident who was hospitalized was being tested for the virus.

The outbreak at the living center, confirmed by Denton County Public Health as community transmission, put 443 residents and 1,478 employees at risk and worried officials about possibly overwhelming Denton County’s medical resources. The residents are people with intellectual and developmental disabilities — a group that is at risk for more serious cases of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Staff at the living center have expressed to Denton Record-Chronicle reporters since mid-March their concerns that the center wasn’t — and still isn’t — well equipped to handle the outbreak. Those staffers all requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Among the concerns shared were worries about a lack of personal protective equipment and fears that the employees would become infected. A total of 25 DSSLC employees have tested positive for the virus as of Friday.

“[Administration] are using us that have been exposed to the sick individuals to work with other individuals in different homes,” said one nurse on March 22. “If we are positive, we’re exposing our family and others in the community.”

A total of 50 DSSLC residents, on top of the 25 employees, have tested positive for the virus as of Friday. The first was reported on March 20, although it was not publicly known until March 21, when Denton County Public Health reported a total of four positive cases.

An email sent to staff on March 19 stated that the administration learned that day that a hospitalized resident was being tested for COVID-19, but the email indicated the results wouldn’t come back for three to eight days.

The email told people to pass the message along to employees without computer access. One staffer said she didn’t know about the confirmed cases until the Record-Chronicle reported them on March 21.

Access restricted to units, but staff still working there

After the first few cases were reported within the facility, Denton County Public Health worked to organize testing for more residents and staff, with higher-risk individuals going first. As of Friday, all but two residents had been tested.

Measures implemented last week included restricting access to units — “apartments” — where exposed residents lived. Staff learned of the potential case on March 19; however, several have told the Record-Chronicle they were still being told to work in those homes at the time.

“Staff-wise, you may be working in one unit, but you can get pulled to another unit,” a nurse said on March 21. “I don’t think they should be pulling people from one home to another, but they’re still doing it.”

The measures the center planned to take when residents started testing positive included isolating confirmed cases and sending residents to a hospital if needed, along with recommendations for social distancing and preventive measures, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Anyone entering the facility must have their temperature screened.

However, social distancing at the center is only practiced when practical, Kelli Weldon, a spokeswoman for the commission, said on March 25. Staff who aren’t required to be on campus are teleworking, though the centers must meet certain staffing requirements to provide essential services, she said.

“Additionally, movement around campus and mixing of different units is limited,” Weldon said.

Residents are separated into different units for housing, and each unit has apartments.

“Centers are limiting movement around campus, using PPE when appropriate, have implemented telework when possible; the same checks are occurring at the facility entrance, and the same visitor restrictions are in place,” Weldon said.

A report from The Dallas Morning News on Thursday showed staff were still being sent to work with residents who tested positive.

Another nurse who works closely with residents said Tuesday that they’re working in safe environments.

“If employees enter a home without [personal protective equipment], that is their choice and highly discouraged,” she said.

Although she said it’s highly discouraged, an email sent to staff from the Texas Human Health and State Services Commission and obtained by The Dallas Morning News said any staff who refused to work wherever assigned would be written up for insubordination.

Staffers who resigned would never be rehired, the email states.

Protective equipment and temperature screening

Personal protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic has become synonymous with gowns and N95 masks, but not all staffers get the same equipment. HHSC spokeswoman Christine Mann said Wednesday that staff who don’t work in units with sick or exposed residents are provided surgical face masks.

“Staff working with sick residents, or residents who may have been exposed to COVID-19 are being supplied the appropriate personal protective equipment and are following all CDC guidelines to protect their safety and prevent spread,” Mann said. “Currently, Denton SSLC has the supply necessary to protect staff and residents, and we’re working closely with state and federal authorities to ensure we continue to have the supplies we need.”

The nationwide lack of personal protective equipment affected the living center, too, but Denton County Emergency Services Coordinator Jody Gonzalez told Denton County commissioners on March 24 that they now have enough personal protective equipment for staff and residents to last through April.

“We’ll continue to send those requests up to the state to make sure that we have enough room in May and June to make sure that they have that equipment,” Gonzalez said.

A risk management staffer at the center said some nurses have also been wearing handmade masks.

“Nurses I have talked to say that N95 masks are in short supply,” he said. “One nurse makes her own for herself and for other nurses. It’s a layer of fabric, an air conditioner filter she cuts to size, another layer of fabric all sewn together like a sandwich.”

He said people arrived at the gates of the center last week with pallets containing surgical masks to donate, which are used by staff who don’t work with sick or exposed residents.

The Texas Department of State Health Services’ strategies for optimizing the supply of personal protective equipment is broken down into three categories: conventional capacity, contingency capacity and crisis capacity.

Contingency capacity strategies note that health care providers can selectively cancel non-urgent surgical procedures. Crisis capacity strategies outline that health care providers should cancel all non-urgent procedures. Both measures have been implemented across the United States.

Those two strategies also note that N95 or equivalent respirators can be used beyond the manufacturer-designated shelf life. The CDC also provides this information in its frequently asked questions about N95 respirators.

“In times of increased demand and decreased supply, consideration can be made to use N95 respirators past their intended shelf life,” the CDC states. “However, the potential exists that the respirator will not perform to the requirements for which it was certified.”

Staff and essential visitors who wish to enter the state supported living center must have their temperatures screened. Mann said the center uses FDA-approved temporal and infrared thermometers to screen people. Anyone who fails temperature screening is denied entry.

Aid for the Denton center

Denton County and city officials expressed concerns in a March 25 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott that the outbreak at the Denton State Supported Living Center could overwhelm the county’s medical facilities. In the letter, they also asked Abbott to approve a temporary hospital at the facility.

Two days later, state health officials announced they would set up emergency medical resources on-site and coordinate hospitalizations with the hospitals in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Four EMT units are stationed outside the campus for those who need transportation to hospitals. In a memo to Denton City Council on March 28, City Manager Todd Hileman said Denton City Fire Chief Kenneth Hedges and Police Chief Frank Dixon are both involved in a unified command structure at the center with state emergency services experts.

The underpass at South Loop 288 and Interstate 35E reopened at the end of March after more than two years of construction at the intersection, and new traffic lights were recently installed. The remaining portions of the project, including draining, sidewalks and landscaping, will be completed this month.

Joe Exotic of Netflix hit 'Tiger King' has Denton County roots

Long before Netflix made Joe Exotic a household name as the Tiger King, he was Joe Schreibvogel the Arlington pet store owner.

Now known by his married name, Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the 57-year-old former owner of an Oklahoma exotic-animal park is in federal custody, serving a 22-year sentence after he was convicted in January of violating the Endangered Species Act, falsifying wildlife records and scheming to have a hit man kill a rival who owns a big-cat sanctuary in Florida.

He has become an immediate sensation as people who are stuck at home through the coronavirus crisis have flocked to the weird, wild Netflix documentary series Tiger King.

But the infamous man with an equally famous mullet had a long history in North Texas before he owned his first tiger.

Small-town police chief

In 1982, at age 19, Schreibvogel graduated from Pilot Point High School and was named police chief of Eastvale, a small Denton County town that consolidated with The Colony in 1987.

The town of about 700 people, on the east shore of Lewisville Lake, had financial troubles and declared itself blighted in 1984 so it could try to get state or federal aid. The water system was unreliable, the roads were undriveable and the sewage situation was unbearable.

In a letter, Schreibvogel wrote that failing police equipment was only one reason officers were struggling.

“Items that are attached to vehicles keep falling off, and they have either been replaced or repaired,” he said. “And we are unable to tell if we have an intoxicated driver because citizens have to drive on the wrong side of the road half the time so they can miss the large holes.”

He left law enforcement the following year after an incident he later said nearly cost him his life.

He has said that he was critically injured during a drug investigation, when someone forced his car off a bridge.

He said he was in a coma for nine days and suffered broken bones in his back, right arm, right leg, ribs, shoulder and nose.

After six months in a hospital, he moved to Florida for rehabilitation, he said. He had to wear leg and body braces for five years, he told The Dallas Morning News in 1997.

“I nearly died for $1,600 a month and trying to be fair,” he said. “That’s why I stick up for the underdog.”

Schreibvogel said the incident left him apprehensive about law enforcement.

“I have no desire to be a police officer again,” he said. “I pity the honest ones, and I’m afraid of the dishonest ones.”

The veracity of his story is unclear, though. He also has said the crash was a suicide attempt, and residents didn’t remember it happening at all, New York magazine reported.

Pet-store owner

After a couple of years in Florida, Schreibvogel returned to North Texas and got a job as a security guard at the Round-Up Saloon in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood, according to New York.

It was at the Round-Up where he met his first partner, Brian Rhyne, and the two moved to Arlington together. (Rhyne died of complications from HIV in 2001.)

Schreibvogel started working at Pet Safari, a pet store in Arlington’s Fielder Plaza that he eventually bought.

In the summer of 1993, his store was the target of two snake snatchings.

Schreibvogel said he was a bit puzzled by the crime because the thief broke in and took seven of what a News reporter called “pretty average snakes” — a red-tailed boa constrictor and six pythons, none of them especially valuable. He said the burglaries led him to sleep in the store with guns, just in case.

A few weeks later, police arrested an 18-year-old and recovered three of the snakes, though one of them later died.

According to Schreibvogel, the 8-foot-long boa constrictor, named Scooby, and the other snake showed signs of mistreatment.

Harassment, advocacy

Schreibvogel returned to the pages of The News in 1997, claiming that local officials were harassing his business. He also spoke out about his sexuality and asserted that it might be why the city seemed to be targeting him.

In a letter to the editor that March advocating for candidates in local elections, he wrote that he had been repeatedly cited for using portable signs, having cigarette butts in his parking lot and putting a strobe light in his store window.

Schreibvogel, 34 at the time, said Arlington needed to take better care of its small-business owners.

“It’s time people spoke up, and I’m leading the pack,” he wrote.

Three months later he spoke to a reporter after a gay and lesbian group’s family day at Six Flags Over Texas bothered some area Southern Baptists.

“The prejudice needs to stop. Why shouldn’t gays enjoy a family day without prejudice?” he said. “You don’t choose this life. This is the way you’re born.”

Schreibvogel closed Pet Safari and opened a new store, Super Pets, in the same shopping plaza that summer.

The city continued to target him, he said, because he put up U.S. flags with rainbow stripes and hung rainbow bunting. He said he had been cited 18 times and received even more warnings.

“It’s a shame that they’re homophobic,” he said. “They’re trying to find any excuse to run me out of business.”

Arlington officials said they were merely enforcing an ordinance he continued to violate, but the store owner didn’t see it that way.

“To me, there’s no difference between my flags and the flags that the car lots and other businesses have,” he said. “A lot of it’s got to do with the fact that I’m very outspoken and I’m gay.”

Schreibvogel talked to a lawyer to make sure his flags, which he said attracted customers, were in compliance with city ordinances.

“The city inspectors had better not jack with me,” he said.

The emu tragedy

When animal-welfare investigators found a flock of emaciated emus, along with dozens of dead birds, in Red Oak in February 1999, Schreibvogel offered the animals a new home at an Oklahoma sanctuary his parents had established in memory of his brother.

“His lifetime dream was to go to Australia,” the emus’ native land, Schreibvogel said of G.W. Schreibvogel, who died in a traffic accident near Dallas in 1997. (The animal sanctuary became the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, or G.W. Zoo, featured in Tiger King.)

Rounding up the large birds proved to be difficult, however.

Schreibvogel, volunteers, police and members of the Red Oak High School FFA “found themselves struggling against birds almost as tall as humans and capable of tremendous kicks with taloned feet,” The News reported as the roundup began.

Several people suffered minor injuries, and nine of the captured birds died, stressed and overcrowded in trailers.

A day later, police and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals members were shocked when Schreibvogel and another man used a shotgun to kill several of the emus, saying it was more humane than putting them through the ordeal of being captured and moved.

Video footage of the incident showed Schreibvogel and Jim Claytor walking up to the birds and shooting them one at a time. Some died instantly, others flopped around and required more than one shot.

“You can’t come out here and say, ‘I’m going to save all these birds,’ then say, ‘I’ve got to kill them because I’m getting tired,’” said an exasperated Red Oak Police Chief Doug McHam.

But because the birds were considered livestock, they were allowed to be killed humanely. Schreibvogel and Claytor were allowed to use officers’ shotguns because they were considered more likely to kill the birds quickly than the men’s small-caliber weapons.

Margaret Pounder, then president of the American Emu Association, called the incident “a travesty” that could have been avoided.

Schreibvogel ended up signing over custody of about 160 of the surviving birds to a ranch owner in Hood County. A Gainesville couple took custody of several others.

Red Oak police referred the case to an Ellis County grand jury, which declined to indict Schreibvogel on animal-cruelty charges.

Back in Dallas-Fort Worth

Not long afterward, Schreibvogel sold his pet store, claiming that negative publicity from the emu incident had hurt his business.

He eventually moved to the Oklahoma sanctuary, where much of the story of Tiger King is set.

Now known by his married name, Joe Maldonado-Passage recently returned to North Texas when he was transferred to the Fort Worth Federal Medical Center. His husband says he is in quarantine because there were cases of COVID-19 at his previous facility.

Maldonado-Passage also recently filed a federal lawsuit that seeks nearly $94 million from numerous people and government entities, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

The lawsuit names the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of the Interior and witnesses against him among the defendants. His slew of allegations includes discrimination, entrapment, false imprisonment and perjury. No hearings have been set.

Lewisville nursing home resident Denton County's 6th COVID-19 death

Denton County health officials announced Friday the sixth fatality resulting from complications of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

A female in her 70s from Lewisville was previously reported among Denton County’s hospitalized cases, and as one of local transmission. Her case was the first publicly identified as emanating from a nursing home, although officials did not name the facility.

As with the five other Denton County residents who have died from COVID-19, county health officials provided no other identifying information.

County officials also confirmed an additional 19 cases Friday afternoon, increasing the countywide total to 273 since public health officials began tracking the pandemic last month.

Denton County is listed among the nation’s hot spots for the virus, according to a University of Chicago study of reported rates of infection across the U.S.

Researchers analyzed county-level data to calculate the number of reported infections per 1,000 and per 10,000 people.

Only Harris (1,106 cases as of Friday), Dallas (921), Tarrant (383) and Travis (430) counties have consistently reported more cases then Denton County. Yet, Denton County ranks ninth in population statewide.

An investigation into the virus’s spread at the Denton State Supported Living Center contributed to the tally. About one-quarter of the reported cases in Denton County emanated from the center. Health officials did not identify any new cases there Friday, leaving its case count at 75. In addition to 50 residents, a total of 25 center employees have tested positive, including 20 who are reflected in Denton County totals.

Five other employees who live outside the county are excluded from the local count.

COVID-19 symptoms include a fever, persistent cough and shortness of breath.

Public health officials urge individuals to call before going to the emergency room or doctor’s office to limit the spread of the virus.