Home > Uncategorized > Florida moves ahead of Massachusetts in testing group home staff for COVID-19

Florida moves ahead of Massachusetts in testing group home staff for COVID-19

The administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has had an abysmal record of dealing with the spread of COVID-19 in his state.

But last week, even DeSantis took a critical step in protecting persons with intellectual disabilities that the Baker administration in Massachusetts has so far refused to take.

According to the News Service of Florida, group homes and other facilities in that state will be required to start testing staff members every other week for COVID-19, under an emergency rule issued by the DeSantis administration. The administration will provide test kits free of charge to the residential providers.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services (DDS) has continued to allow COVID-19 testing to remain voluntary for staff working in its residential facilities. This has sparked continuing concern among guardians, family members and advocacy organizations, including COFAR, that without mandatory testing, staff will remain a source of potential infection of large numbers of DDS clients.

In addition to Florida’s decision to make staff testing mandatory, Florida’s use of testing kits could prove more efficient than the mobile testing system in Massachusetts in which a single company, Fallon Ambulance Service, has been traveling around the state in order to test residents and staff.

The testing process in Massachusetts has slowed to a virtual crawl since mid-May, and thousands of residents and staff still remain untested in the DDS group home system.

Beyond that, the Massachusetts DDS has no publicly disclosed plans or apparently even a coherent policy regarding periodic re-testing of either residents or staff.

In a statement last week accompanying the announcement of the staff testing requirement in Florida, Barbara Palmer, director of the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD),  termed the requirement “a vital step to help ensure the safety of our employees and customers.”

In a communication with us on a separate issue yesterday (August 10), DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder stated that new “testing guidance for Congregate Care settings is expected to be issued shortly.” Ryder provided no specifics regarding that guidance.

Massachusetts DDS data indicates thousands still not yet tested

A total 13,100 staff in the DDS system had been tested as of July 28, according to DDS data. But it is unclear what percentage that number is of the total number of staff working in the system.

DDS apparently doesn’t know the total number of staff in the group home system. In an April 29 response to a Public Records Request we had submitted for that information, DDS responded that there were approximately 2,664 full-time-equivalent staff working in state-operated group homes.

But the DDS response stated that the Department had no records showing the number of staff working in the much larger provider-operated group home system. In order to get that information, the response stated, DDS would have to review provider contracts, which would require “substantial expenditure of employee work time.”

We have assumed there are between 14,000 and 15,000 provider staff working in group homes — an estimate based on a ratio of about 1.6 direct care staff per resident. That number, however, does not include clinicians and other floating staff.

Based on our estimate, some 2,000 or more direct-care staff and an undetermined number of clinicians and other floating staff have still not been tested for the virus in Massachusetts.  In addition, some 1,200 residents remain untested.

Despite that, based on DDS data, it appears that the testing rate by Fallon Ambulance had slowed to as low as 36 tests per day as of July 28. Between July 14 and July 28, Fallon tested only 200 residents and 300 staff.

No plans or timelines

As we have noted before, the Baker administration does not appear to have an overall plan or even a coherent policy for testing for the virus in the DDS system.

In the April 29 response to our Public Records Request, DDS stated that the Department had no records containing projected timelines for COVID-19 testing of  residents and staff in DDS residential settings.

We have frequently asked DDS for their policy on testing and retesting of residents and staff, given that residents in certain group homes have been retested multiple times while others, as noted, have never been tested. DDS has never responded to those questions.

In addition, we learned in June that despite a stated intention in April to test all residents and staff in the DDS system, DDS has actually been allowing providers to opt out of the Fallon Ambulance testing program altogether.

Moreover, DDS appears to have been largely relying for the past several months on provider reports of symptomatic residents, rather than on actual testing, in determining the number of persons in the system who are currently considered to be infected with the virus.

It is unclear whether the new testing guidance that Commissioner Ryder referred to yesterday will address any of those issues.

Legislature has also failed to push for mandatory staff testing in Massachusetts

Despite paying some lip service to the importance of staff testing, the state Legislature has done little to bring it about.

State Rep. Kay Khan, the House chair of the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee, claimed in July that she had been advocating for increased testing in the DDS system. But Khan then apparently falsely told a COFAR member that requiring mandatory testing of staff was not allowed by statute, and that the Massachusetts General Laws would need to be changed through legislation for that to become policy.

There appear, however, to be no statutes in Massachusetts that would prohibit DDS from requiring that staff be tested. In an email to Khan on July 8, I asked if she could provide a citation of the statute she was referring to. Khan did not respond to my query. 

On May 18, we reported that state Senator Jamie Eldridge, who had filed a bill to make testing of staff mandatory in nursing homes, was reportedly supporting mandatory staff testing in the DDS system as well.

A redraft of Eldridge’s bill by the Public Health Committee did add language that would appear to include group homes in the measure; but the bill itself only states that the Department of Public Health “may require” that staff either be tested for “certain diseases” or have their temperature taken as a condition of reporting for work.  And even that weakly worded legislation has remained in the Senate Ways and Means Committee since June.

We recognize and appreciate that Massachusetts has led the way for much of the nation in its general response to the COVID pandemic. But as we’ve said before, Massachusetts has not shown the same commitment toward protecting persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the virus. And we, as a state, may even be in danger of falling behind a lagging state such as Florida in that regard.

  1. Maureen Shea
    August 11, 2020 at 7:17 pm

    Thank You Dave for all of these reports re: DDS lack of care for residents in their provider’s homes . It is sad that they cannot have the decency to respond to your requests. It’s disrespectful to the clients they serve for not stepping up to protect them.
    It is their job, supposedly mandated reporters to work toward the safety of this vulnerable population. How can they look in the mirror at night knowing they are putting Individuals at risk by not testing both staff and clients? Why are DDS and Residential CEO’s allowed to place clients in danger? Once again Thank You Dave, no one would know of this serious important over site without your diligence.
    They all should be ashamed for not protecting the vulnerable .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. August 11, 2020 at 7:26 pm

    Thank’s for your support, Maureen!


  3. Sady
    August 16, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    “MA has led the way”? MA has the third highest death rate in the country – largely due to the 64% of covid deaths that occurred in state “regulated” and facilitated nursing homes.
    Florida has 3x population of MA and a much higher percentage of elderly – yet their stats for infection and death rate are comparable to MA.


    • August 16, 2020 at 1:56 pm

      Massachusetts has been able to bring the death rate down since March or April. The opposite is happening in Florida where the death rate is rising rapidly.


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