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COVID caught OPWDD in perfect storm of underfunding, understaffing, no plan

By SHERRY HALBROOK

July 13, 2021 — PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio represented the union’s members as a panelist on a roundtable discussion held via Zoom by the state Senate Disabilities Committee June 3 that focused primarily on state residential facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

DiAntonio and other panelists gave state legislators a vivid picture of the many steep challenges they face.   The senators, both Democrats and Republicans, also expressed strong concerns of their own about the issue and their support and appreciation for the dedicated service of PEF members and others struggling to meet the public’s needs.

Sen. Michael Martucci (R-42), ranking member of the minority party on the committee, expressed deep frustration with his largely fruitless efforts to get facts and data from the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities(OPWDD).

“Our overworked (state) staff cannot stand any more cuts (to funding, services or staffing),” Martucci declared at the onset of the event.

Martucci was somewhat mollified when OPWDD Commissioner Ted Kastner spoke and provided some of the data and further said he would meet personally with Martucci to answer his questions.

Kastner gave the agency’s view of how hard and quickly it rushed to address the pandemic and state shutdown of non-essential services that began in March 2020.  As an agency with a large direct-care mission, many of its services and personnel were considered essential throughout the ensuing months.  Nevertheless, OPWDD shut down its day-treatment programs on March 18, 2020, and visitation and outings for individuals in its care six days later because “they seemed to be a primary vector for transmission (of the infection).  Prevention of transmission was key to all of our efforts,” he said.

The commissioner said that he also reassigned nearly 100 internal affairs personnel to do contact tracing and answer the sudden onslaught of calls coming in on the agency’s hotline from staff and members of the public seeking information about what was being done and what they could do to avoid infection and maintain needed services.  As clients became infected and the need to isolate them grew, Kastner said he directed 100 of the unused day-treatment sites to be converted to temporary residential housing.

In addition to limited institutional residential care, Kastner said the state funds and oversees a combined total of approximately 1,025 group homes operated in local communities by state personnel and by voluntary not-for-profit agencies.  They house up to 35,000 individuals, and 85 percent of them were vaccinated by May 14, he reported.  Kastner further reported that of the 10,163 residents who became infected with COVID-19, 668 have died, which calculates to a six percent mortality rate.

Martucci asked why the death rates were so high and Kastner responded that the individuals in their care are a “very high-risk population” and they often have other co-morbidities or health issues that make them more vulnerable and require frequent close contact with the persons caring for them.  Also, transmission is easier in congregate care settings, even for otherwise healthy people.

The senators questioned why infected individuals continued to be housed by the state or private agencies.  Kastner responded that his order included “anti-discrimination language” and that the group homes could refuse to keep or take the infected individuals if they did not have a nurse or capacity to care for them.  “We told them, ‘We’re here to help you.’”  He added, “We always did the very best that we could.”

Sen. Mannion asked, “Did any workers die of COVID?”

Kastber said, “Yes, but I don’t have that number specifically.”

Kastner praised “the heroic efforts of direct-support professionals.  We are immensely indebted to their dedication.”

Sen. Roxanne Persaud (D-19) asked why many staff were required to stay on duty while they were infected, and did not even receive payment for it in some cases. She said that she was told by some of her constituents that they were directed to remain with a COVID-positive patient for up to three weeks.

“It must have been the local agency’s policy,” Kastner responded.

Persaud also asked Kastner, “Are you offering any incentive to staff to be vaccinated?”  He said, “We’re conducting public meetings on how to use federal funds.”

Kastner also said his agency’s data shows that new positive cases are now running about 10-15 per week for the 128,000 developmentally disabled individuals in its database.

PEF VP DiAntonio said the challenge of quickly and effectively responding to the pandemic was far more difficult because OPWDD did not have adequate infrastructure, in terms of staffing and resources, to be  properly prepared for such a contingency.

“No plan was in place and coordination was very disjointed, with frequently changing guidelines,” DiAntonio said.  Staff members at both the state and private agencies were constantly left “waiting for centralized decisions in Albany.”

Equally dangerous was the widespread lack of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gowns, gloves, and cleaning supplies. “People were told to wear the same mask for a week, and to reuse gowns,” she said.  Even now, more than a year into the pandemic, “They still have not authorized N95 masks for personal care (of individuals) and there is still no formal, consistent fit testing process in place.”

Nearly all of the panelists stressed the importance of adequate staffing to keep both individuals and staff members safe and to provide effective care.

Panelist Tom Alvanah, president of NY Disability Advocates’ interagency council on developmental disabilities, said private agencies caring for individuals with developmental disabilities were no better prepared than the state for the pandemic.  “We have an impnding staff disaster.  One-third of these agencies had just 30 days of cash on hand (when the pandemic struck), and another one-third have closed.”

Noting that she is a social worker who has worked for OPWDD for 23 years, DiAntonio said she has seen the agency’s workforce gradually depleted by 4,500 positions and the closure of 3,000 beds as part of “a systemic effort to shrink (the agency’s) footprint.  And as it shed staff, the state has used it as a reason to suspend services, close residential beds and group homes. During the height of COVID, these shortages led to redeployments and floating of staff, which contributed to increased transmission and exposure to infections.

Peter Zummo, a member of the Executive Council of the NY Alliance for the Developmentally Disabled, said that as the parent of an individual with developmental disabilities, he has been dismayed and demoralized seeing staffing reduced at the group home where his son lives.

The direct-care staff “all stayed at their jobs throughout the pandemic, even though they are not paid a living wage,” Zummo said.  “Millions of (federal) dollars are coming into the state, and OPWDD is cutting funding.  My son has had no services for the last 15 months.  He just sits and watches TV.  He hasn’t even been allowed to have family visit him.”

Sen. Martucci shared his outrage.  “Now is not the time to be making cuts to these services,” he said.  “I have tremendous concerns about the abbreviated quarantine period.  I’ll follow up with the commissioner.”

Kathy Bunce of the Statewide Family Advocacy Network of NYS said, “The pandemic shines a light on a very long problem of underfunded services.  It was the perfect storm.  Without funding and staffing, we have no future.  Family members go door-to-door handing out fliers looking for staff.  We need to stop these crazy cuts.  Now is the time.  They are essential workers.  We need to fund the future.”

Panelist Karen Nagy of Eastern NY Developmental Disabilities Advocates said, “The cuts are completely opposed to the human rights of these individuals.  Our workforce is in crisis.  Without staff, all of the other expenses are worthless. Nothing else will matter.”

Sen. Mannion told the many panelists, “Thank you to your members for giving their lives to care for these people.”