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Family Faces 'Extremely Challenging' Situation As COVID-19 Hits Denton State Living Center

Christopher Connelly / KERA News
By Monday afternoon, Denton County reported 49 cases of COVID-19 at the Denton State Supported Living Center. Family visitations were suspended two weeks ago.

Two weeks ago, Emilie and Tim Sherrod received a letter from the Denton State Supported Living Center. It said visitation had been suspended due to concerns about coronavirus, so they wouldn’t be visiting their identical twin sons, Ty and Tate, any time soon.

Credit Courtesy Sherrod family
Tate and Ty Sherrod, 24, live at the Denton State Supported Living Center.

Ty and Tate are 24, and they’ve lived at the center for about five years. They’re nonverbal, autistic and have intellectual disabilities.

“To hear that they were actually locked down and we didn’t have that option, it just really upped the ante,” Emilie Sherrod said.

The following week, four residents tested positive for COVID-19 at the state-run home for people with severe disabilities. By Monday, the count had grown to 49, and 22 staff members tested positive as well.

On Friday, the Sherrods had to give permission for their sons to get tested for COVID-19, though they are not showing symptoms. They expect results early this week. Emilie Sherrod says she trusts the center’s administration and the local health department — she gets regular updates from one of the caretakers, and her sons are pretty healthy young men. It’s extremely challenging, she says, but she imagines it’s even worse for the families of the center’s many residents who are medically fragile.

“It’s just really, really hard right now," she said. "We’re just kind of on the outside looking in and trying to be positive.”

A retired nurse, Sherrod knows this coronavirus is highly transmissible. The building where her sons live is close quarters — it’s a dormitory-style setup and each son has a roommate. Basic hygiene is far from automatic: even basic hand-washing needs to be re-taught every day.

Then there are staffing concerns: Her sons require three full-time staff members during the daytime, and two overnight night. More than 400 people live at the center, and there are more than 1,700 staff members to give residents the care that they need. What happens if a lot of the staff members have to stay home to quarantine or just take care of kids?

Credit Courtesy Sherrod family
The Sherrod family from left:Ty, Emilie, Tim and Tate Sherrod.

“You can’t just pull Johnny Q. Public off the street and they’ll know my sons service plans, or any other individual. They’re all very specialized because they’re all different in their own way, and they all have their own special set of needs,” Sherrod said. “You don’t go to the [living center] because you're easy to manage behaviorally, usually.”

Last week the number of cases at the center surged. County officials and the state health department said they’re working closely to coordinate care and have an effective plan in place to slow the spread.

By Friday, everyone in the highest risk category had been tested, according to Denton County Health Director Matt Richardson, and health officials had begun testing asymptomatic people who may have been exposed, though he said limited testing supplies has made progress slow.

“We do believe that's going to work, but because of the vulnerability and the medical fragility of some of those residents, it is a concern and we do anticipate that there may be more positives. We don’t have a way to quantify that at this time,” Richardson said.

Residents who’ve tested positive are being kept separate from asymptomatic residents, and EMTs are standing by to take residents to local hospitals.

Emilie Sherrod says it can be hard to grasp just how challenging even basic illness can be for people with severe intellectual disabilities, if you haven’t spent much time around them. It’s confusing, they may not be able to explain their symptoms or understand why they feel so bad. Unfamiliar health professionals in masks can be frightening. And if they end up hospitalized, it gets worse.

“I’m going to use the word nightmare. They’re scare of the needles, they’re scared of the people dressed in scrubs, you have to talk them through every single procedure and test and everything they’re doing so that they won’t have as much fear,” though that’s not always enough, Sherrod says. “I think you spend the life-span praying that they’ll never end up in the hospital. I know I do.”

Credit Courtesy Sherrod family
Emilie Sherrod and Ty Sherrod

Late on Sunday morning — a sunny, warm day that would usually be prime time for visitors — very few cars drove past the squat guard house and the rust-colored stone wall that surrounds the sprawling green campus and into the wooded facilities. Sundays are when Emilie and Tim Sherrod come to visit Ty and Tate.

“We go in the apartment, we maybe shower, get the boys shaved, dressed up in their cutest clothes, and we go in dad’s pickup truck, which is a big deal for them,” she says.

Then they cruise around Denton, get takeout and go for soft-serve yogurt. Chocolate and vanilla swirl is the boys’ favorite.

After that, they just hang out, as a family. The Sherrods make a three-hour round trip from their home in Wichita Falls every other Sunday. The boys do better with a very regular schedule, but there was no visit last weekend, and Emilie Sherrod knows they’ll miss many more in the weeks to come.

“You know as a mom, I like to get my hands on them, give them a hug and a squeeze, but that’s not happening right now,” she says.

So Sherrod and her husband talk with their son’s social worker every day, keeping up on what’s going on. And they’re praying that their boys, and all the residents and staff at the living center, that everybody, somehow, ends up safe and healthy.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.