Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center resident Jose Velasquez was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 26. About three weeks later, he was dead from the virus.
Up until an hour before his death, Southeast’s staff assured Velasquez’s family that he was “doing fine and showed no symptoms of the disease,” his two adult children allege in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Their suit accuses the facility of gross negligence by exposing Velasquez to an “extreme degree of high risk in light of the near certainty of his exposure to COVID-19 as a result of (its) malfeasance.”
Velasquez, 79, is among 18 Southeast patients who have died from the coronavirus — the most deaths of any nursing home in San Antonio. His heirs’ lawsuit is the first brought against Southeast over a resident dying from COVID-19. Filed Wednesday in state District Court in San Antonio, the suit seeks unspecified financial damages.
At least 75 residents and 29 workers at the 116-bed facility at 4302 E. Southcross have tested positive for the virus. One worker died from the disease.
“Southeast has had a long history of problems and a long history of infection control (issues),” said Beth Janicek, a San Antonio lawyer representing Velasquez’s children. “They were understaffed and undermanaged going into (the pandemic). And so, when something like this happens, everything really goes out of control.”
Janicek has two other pending lawsuits against Southeast. She represents a Southeast licensed vocational nurse who alleges that Southeast fired her in retaliation after about 12 years of employment for reporting patient abuse and neglect, along with safety violations.
The other lawsuit is unrelated to COVID-19. In that wrongful death complaint, Southeast is accused of negligence after the 2018 death of a resident who suffered pressure injuries.
A lawyer who is representing Southeast in that case didn’t respond to a request for comment. But in the case, as well as two other pending cases filed before the virus outbreak, Southeast filed responses denying liability for health care-related claims.
“Defendant would show that any occurrence in question was the result of events and/or conditions wholly beyond the scope and control of defendant and for which it is not responsible,” Southeast said in an April court filing in the pressure injuries case.
Southeast is managed by Arlington-based Advanced Healthcare Solutions, which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Southeast has not yet filed an answer to the Velasquez complaint.
Velasquez suffered from dementia and diabetes, Janicek said. The latter is an underlying medical condition that can increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. Dementia-related behaviors, such as failing to remember to wash hands, may increase the risk for coronavirus, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s website.
The lawsuit by Velasquez’s children — Annie Marie Gibbs and Joe Edward Velasquez — cites an October federal inspection report that found that Southeast failed to provide and implement an infection prevention and control program.
The lawsuit alleges that Southeast “systematically understaffed in March 2020 in an effort to maximize profits.” Based on staffing data from 2017 and 2018, the suit says, Southeast is believed to have been understaffed by 20 percent from CMS-expected staffing levels.
“This understaffing was extremely dangerous to both the residents and staff of the facility,” the suit adds.
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which helps regulate the state’s nursing homes, has launched an investigation into potential violations at Southeast. The agency didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.
The Velasquez children’s suit coincides with efforts by health care facilities in the state and nationally to gain immunity from legal action related to COVID-19.
The immunity requested would not cover litigation alleging injury or death caused by “reckless conduct, intentional, willful or wanton misconduct.”
Janicek believes that the understaffing at Southeast was intentional, but she also said it had limited personal protective equipment and failed to provide hand sanitizer.
One question that gnaws at Janicek: Why were some patients dying from COVID-19 — including Velasquez — not taken to the hospital? She doesn’t have an answer.
“But I’m certainly going to find one,” she said.
Photo by Josie Norris
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