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DDS must develop a clear coronavirus policy for residential facilities and providers

March 26, 2020 2 comments

As the number of people infected with the coronavirus continues to grow in Massachusetts, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) appears to lack a clear and consistent set of policies and plans for protecting residents in its group homes and other residential facilities.

Instead, there appears to be a patchwork of statements and sometimes contradictory policies on the DDS coronavirus website page.

We are concerned that to the extent DDS has developed policies on how residents should be cared for and what precautions should be taken by staff, current protocols will be inadequate to protect residents of any DDS-run or corporate provider-run facility should one or more of the residents become exposed to or infected by the virus.

At least one set of guidelines sent out by DDS to providers this past weekend appears to imply that residents of group homes must be removed from those facilities if even one resident becomes infected. But DDS appears to have no plan for where those residents would be taken.

If residents in several homes become infected, the system could become quickly overwhelmed.

In phone contacts on Wednesday (March 25), DDS officials acknowledged the Department has no long-term plan for relocating infected residents from their residences if the pandemic becomes worse.

We are recommending to DDS that a single, comprehensive plan be developed immediately to address all contingencies in the Department’s residential system, including the possibility of removing infected residents from group homes and placing them in DDS-run hospital settings. That might involve re-purposing closed day program facilities or finding and re-purposing available space in the state’s two remaining Intermediate Care Facilities (ICFs).

We have already heard of instances in which individual providers have opened new group homes or re-purposed existing facilities to be able to respond to those contingencies.

Current guidance documents are contradictory and potentially inadequate 

DDS appears to have been relying on a guidance document from the Department of Public Health (DPH) to cover COVID-19-related precautions and procedures in residential programs in the DDS system.

The March 16 DPH guidelines state, among other things, that patients with known or suspected COVID-19 should be cared for in a single-person room with the door closed.

But COFAR Board President Thomas J. Frain said he is concerned that most group homes are too small to ensure that an infected or ill resident could be effectively isolated from the other residents of the residence.

Meanwhile, a second guidance document, dated March 20, which DDS informed Frain had been sent to all providers this past weekend, appears to imply that any resident of a “household”-sized facility who is suspected of even having had “close contact” with someone known to have the virus should be removed from the residence for 14 days.

Group homes are effectively households, Frain said. If one person does test positive for the virus, everyone else in the residence will essentially have had close contact with them. So the second directive would imply that if one person is exposed or is sick with the virus, everyone would need to be quarantined, meaning they would have to be taken somewhere else for 14 days.

Frain maintained that group homes, which often utilize shared bathrooms, are not large enough to isolate an ill resident and protect other residents from becoming infected by the first resident or by infected staff.

The problem is compounded by the fact that DDS has no plans for how to remove and quarantine infected residents safely, promising only to develop them in the future.

High-level advocacy needed for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities

COFAR stressed to DDS officials the need to advocate on behalf of DDS clients and their families with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and with Governor Baker. “These most vulnerable members of our society have many competing interests from other populations and agencies, but DDS residents cannot self-advocate,” COFAR Executive Director Colleen M. Lutkevich said.

Lutkevich maintained that the lack of planning and advocacy extends to DDS clients in settings other than group homes such as adult foster care and staffed apartments, and even to individuals living at home with their families. “If a person lives alone in an apartment, and even if DDS staff checks on them – what happens when that person becomes ill?” Lutkevich asked.

COFAR suggests repurposing of available facilities

COFAR is urging DDS to require each provider to develop a plan to remove and relocate residents if group homes are forced to close due to infection and quarantine. Those plans could include the re-purposing of currently closed day programs and their staffs, empty quarters or buildings at ICFs, and other appropriate and available locations.  Several providers are already beginning to work on this, and their models of re-purposing facilities could be shared with other providers.

In addition:

  • DDS and the Baker administration should seek out federal disaster assistance for help with relocation and care of infected group home and other facility residents.
  • Ongoing staff training is needed, particularly if day program staff are retrained to help care for ill residents.

Single set of guidelines needed

We think all of the plans described above need to be part of a single, comprehensive set of guidelines that should be developed for all of DDS’s residential facilities, both state and corporate-provider-run, during the pandemic.  That comprehensive policy document should be communicated in writing to all facility managers.

A primary function of DDS is to make sure its residents are protected, whether in a state-operated group home, a corporate-operated group home or an ICF. DDS regulations define a “serious risk of harm” as “a significant exposure to serious physical injury or serious emotional injury.”

DDS’s current policies do not inspire confidence that the department is currently able, in this ongoing pandemic, to meet the standards for protection and safety that are codified in its statute and regulations.

Reducing the impact of the coronavirus on persons with developmental disabilities

March 20, 2020 1 comment

As the conoravirus pandemic grips our nation and so many other countries around the world, we are joining with other advocacy groups in urging policy makers and elected officials to be mindful of the especially devastating impact this illness can have on persons with intellectual and other developmental disabilities (I/DD).

We are trying to do our part in making the public aware that because so many people with I/DD have underlying medical conditions, they are likely to be among the groups with the highest rates of mortality from the COVID-19 virus.

New COFAR coronavirus information page and recommendations on testing and visitation 

Today, we launched a new coronavirus information page on our website at www.cofar.org that is intended as a resource for families seeking information about the coronavirus and how to advocate for and protect their loved ones in the care of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).  You can link directly to the page here.

One of our main recommendations on the new page so far is that if a resident, or staff member caring for a resident, tests positive or is exposed to the coronavirus, family members and guardians should be informed immediately.

We are also concerned that DDS and at least some residential providers may not be implementing uniform policies on visitation of loved ones and testing of healthcare workers in group homes and other residential settings.

We are recommending that all DDS residential facilities adopt the state Public Health Department’s policy regarding access by healthcare workers to nursing homes. Those facilities must confirm that the healthcare worker does not have a fever by taking each worker’s temperature upon arrival for each shift.  The healthcare worker’s temperature must be 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit or lower in order to enter the facility and provide care.

We are also recommending that consideration be given to visits by family and guardians and that they be subject to the same restrictions as those placed on staff. In general, we recommend that visits be relegated to outdoor areas (weather permitting), after hand-washing and maintaining at least a 6-foot social distance between people.

Federal legislation on coronavirus needs to take people with I/DD into account

We are also joining other advocacy organizations in noting that while Congress has so far passed two major coronavirus-related relief bills, more help is needed to support people with disabilities and their families.

We are urging our members to call or email their congressmen/women and senators and ask them to support increased federal funding for coronavirus-related relief programs for persons with developmental disabilities.

Congress has so far passed two major coronavirus bills, but more help is needed to support people with disabilities and their families. The most recent legislation enacted is the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which includes:

  • A 6.2% increase in federal reimbursement for state Medicaid programs (FMAP), which will help state governments in their efforts to combat the pandemic
  • $250 million in additional funding for food programs, including home delivery food programs, for the elderly and disabled
  • Waivers to some requirements for school lunch programs
  • Waivers to work requirements to be eligible for SNAP food programs
  • New, temporary requirements that employers with more than 20 employees offer some paid sick leave time to their employees
  • Extensions to, and additional funds for, unemployment benefits
  • Free COVID-19 testing without co-pays or deductibles

But the legislation does not include funding for caretakers for adults with disabilities or seniors whose programs have closed or whose workers are sick.

A major stimulus package was still pending today (March 20) in Congress that will reportedly provide cash payments directly to most Americans. There are many questions, however, about what that legislation will include. We want to make sure the pending legislation covers additional money for caretakers of adults with disabilities whose programs have closed or whose workers are sick.

We are also requesting that people ask members of Congress to support increased asset limits for people with I/DD receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Medicaid. Because of those asset limits, people with I/DD may end up with too much money in the bank, jeopardizing their SSI and/or Medicaid benefits.

You can find your elected representatives here: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials.

You can also send questions or concerns to us by emailing either Colleen Lutkevich at collen.lutkevich@cofar.org, Thomas J. Frain, Esq. at tjf@frainlaw.com, or David Kassel at davidskassel@gmail.com. We will forward your concerns to DDS.