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As COVID-19 spreads at group homes, there’s a shortage of workers

Coronavirus

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — While nursing homes are the group-setting hardest hit so far by COVID-19 in Rhode Island, residential group homes are also feeling the effects.

Group homes for adults with disabilities — which tend to have much smaller numbers of people living together than nursing homes do — have dozens of positive cases so far in Rhode Island. Two group home residents have died, one a woman in her 20s.

According to the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), which both runs and licenses group homes, there have been 59 positive cases at 21 group homes for the developmentally disabled and five group homes for behavioral healthcare.

That’s out of 1,200 total residents of 290 homes, according to Kerri Zanchi, the former director of the division of developmental disabilities. Zanchi stepped down as director on Friday — a plan that predated the pandemic — but she has stayed on at BHDDH to help lead the emergency COVID-19 efforts.

“None of this work is simple or easy,” Zanchi said in an interview. “It changes day to day. So much about the coronavirus is changing, it’s unpredictable.”

She did not have numbers available for how many of the approximately 4,000 direct care workers have tested positive.

Zanchi said in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, BHDDH has reopened two group homes the state previously closed down in Smithfield and South Kingstown. These larger homes were closed to make way for small homes with fewer residents, but residents are now being housed there so they can spread out.

There are 23 state-run homes, all part of Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS), and three of them have cases of COVID-19, according to Zanchi. 

There are also more than two dozen private group home providers that are licensed by BHDDH, and most of those agencies each have multiple homes. A BHDDH spokesperson declined to provide a breakdown of the number of cases at each agency or residential site.

Other strategies being used at group homes including prohibiting visitors, separating out residents who normally share bedrooms or bathrooms, and keeping residents who have tested positive away from others, according to Zanchi. She said some cohorting is being done, moving residents who have tested positive to homes with others who are positive, and vice versa.

One of the agencies — Cranston-based AccessPoint RI — has had two residents die with the virus, according to the Department of Health. A woman in her 20s died last week, and another person in their 70s died this week.

Executive Director Thomas Kane says the agency has multiple adult residential homes in Cranston and Providence, and 14 residents so far have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are deeply committed to our entire AccessPoint community and working around the clock to do everything we possibly can to keep people safe, well cared for and ensure everyone has what they need,” Kane said in an email.

Zanchi said BHDDH does not believe AccessPoint did anything wrong that led to the spread of the virus, but she said the state did work to figure out what happened.

“Early on, it’s very clear that they had staff who were probably working in several locations due to the staffing challenges, and through contract tracing efforts … that likely was the source of the spread,” she said.

Now, she said BHDDH has issued guidance telling group homes to try not to have staffers work at multiple homes. But with staff members who test positive for COVID-19 staying home, there’s a shortage of direct care workers.

“I can imagine that there are staff that probably need to work at multiple locations due to the urgency and need for staffing,” Zanchi said. “But with that comes close screening by our agencies, and we are not having staff that have had an exposure in one home go to a home that has not had an exposure.”

Kane also said staff members who are working with AccessPoint residents who have tested positive are not working with other residents. He did not have a number for how many of his employees have tested positive, but said there continues to be a shortage of workers.

“This healthcare crisis has only made the shortfall worse,” Kane said. “We continue to have staffing challenges for a variety of reasons during this pandemic, yet every day I am in awe of our staff and their commitment to the people we support. As these staff members walk in the door to work, they are the unsung heroes.”

Zanchi said some workers have actually moved in to group homes so that they don’t potentially spread the virus to their own families. Others are being put up at hotels and going back and forth just to the group home.

She said some private companies are choosing to offer incentives or hazard pay to their employees. The state has not yet announced any plans for hazard pay for direct care workers.

Workers at a Pawtucket group home picketed on Wednesday, demanding better pay and conditions.

To address the shortage, Zanchi urged anyone who is willing to work at a group home to sign up at RIResponds.org.

“We are truly grateful for the heroic efforts of our DD providers and especially our direct support professional workforce,” Zanchi said. “It’s truly making a tremendous difference. We take very seriously the numbers of folks that are being impacted by this.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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