Missouri group homes for disabled still on high alert during pandemic

Caregivers say individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at higher risk

Megan Lynch
August 10, 2020 - 6:00 am

ST. LOUIS, MO (KMOX) - Last week we learned that more than 500 nursing home residents in the state of Missouri have died from COVID-19.

Other vulnerable populations live in group settings in the state.  Thousands of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities live in congregate care settings.  Those range from larger group homes such as state-run habilitation centers to much smaller arrangements with just a few residents sharing an apartment. It's a population that often has other underlying medical conditions.  Many need one-on-one care.

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Wendy Sullivan CEO of Easter Seals Midwest tells KMOX she believes the smaller homes have kept infection rates lower.  Easter Seals serves roughly 500 people in residential settings in Missouri.   Out of that number, less than a dozen have tested positive. One resident has died from coronavirus.

Sullivan says for some of these individuals, the COVID-related guidelines and restrictions have been confusing and frustrating, "it's frightening to them so they may not tolerate wearing a mask, even having a staff person who's helping them, wear a mask."

More than twice as many staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 -- two staff have died.   Sullivan says it's been devastating and made providing essential care for residents an even bigger challenge, with already high turn-over in the industry.

While group home settings can lock down residents during the pandemic, they can't keep employees in a bubble.  That's one of the biggest challenges for agencies responsible for the care of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.   

"It used to be that we had a group known as floaters, that would float from one house to another to fill in shifts, we no longer do that," says Mark Keeley, President and CEO of the St. Louis Arc.  "A lot of the issues are the folks that we employ, and the state employs, are making very low wages, so often they have to work two and three jobs, and where are those other jobs?  Often in fast food or in grocery stores or some of the places where we're seeing higher infections." 

To try and limit staff exposure to COVID, the St. Louis Arc increased pay for frontline workers, so they don't have to work a second job.

Valerie Huhn, Director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities for the Missouri Department of Mental Health, says they've had to stress to staff the need to be vigilant.  "We have a lot of folks who either both work for us and work for a nursing home, or they work for us and a spouse will work for a prison.  So they're in very, very direct contact fields, their whole families are."

Huhn adds, many of these caregivers are in very close contact with residents, providing personal hygiene and feedings.  

Among state-run home settings in Missouri, about ten percent of residents in larger habilitation centers have tested positive for coronavirus.  Three times the numbers of staff have contracted COVID as the number of residents.  3 residents and one staff member have died.  The infection rate among residents at smaller state-supervised home settings is far less -- roughly 2%.

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