Group homes told to take back COVID-positive 'asymptomatic' residents; more than 1.5% died

Nancy Cutler
Rockland/Westchester Journal News

As the pandemic gripped New York, COVID careened through group homes in New York. Residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities were exposed to the virus, even after residences were locked down.

According to data provided by the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the COVID-related death toll hit 538 of about 34,552 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in certified residences; as of Feb. 11, about 6,716 had tested positive for the virus during the pandemic.

That’s a fatality rate of 1.56% within group homes and an infection rate of 19.4%.

COVID-19 spread through these congregate settings even as the state imposed lockdown measures to curb the highly contagious virus.

A look at key policies show weak points that let in the virus even as locked-out family members protested for more access and residents were cut off from in-person day habilitation and job-skills programs. 

One significant policy is gaining new attention: an April 10 advisory from the Office for People with Disabilities to certified residences that is similar to the March 25 advisory from the state Department of Health that critics say lit the fuse for the explosion of nursing home fatalities.

The advisory mandates that certified residential facilities must make a plan to accept group home residents who had been treated in a hospital for COVID-19 and deemed medically able for discharge, as long as they were asymptomatic.

“No individual shall be denied readmission or admission to a Certified Residential Facility based solely on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” the advisory states.

OPWDD spokesperson Jennifer O'Sullivan said of the advisory: "Consistent with public health recommendations, OPWDD issued guidance instructing providers to accept individuals only if they could safely accommodate them in the group home."

"People who could not be safely accommodated either remained at the hospital or were served in one of the over 100 temporary sites established for COVID-19 recovery efforts in partnership with OPWDD provider agencies.” she added.

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O'Sullivan said that last March, OPWDD took action when the state agency "recognized the impact that COVID-19 could have on people we support." That included "immediate action to close congregate day habilitation sites, suspend visitation in community residences, limit community outings, and issue numerous guidance documents and trainings on infection control measures."

'Lack of vision to see options'

Maria McFadden Maffucci of Mamaroneck, a freelance writer and editor of The Human Life Review and frequent contributor to National Review, elevated the advisory in a recent article.

Maffucci had been watching news coverage in recent weeks focusing on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration's decisions regarding nursing homes that are being blamed for widespread infection and high fatality rates from COVID-19.

“When all nursing home stuff started coming out,” Maffucci said, she thought, “I can’t believe no one is writing about group homes.” After a few unsuccessful pitches, she wrote about it herself.

Maffucci’s 26-year-old son, James, is on the autism spectrum. Although he lives at home, Maffucci said the issue makes clear the vulnerability of New Yorkers with developmental disabilities.

Nicholas Bonasera, 27, from Amity Harbor holds a sign as families from around the state gather for a caravan at the NYS Thruway rest area in Ardsley on Thursday, September 17, 2020, to protest the fiscal shape of group homes which face further state aid cuts to their funding.

She is also a member of New York Alliance for Developmental Disabilities. The Facebook-based group has organized protests about policy, safety and social issues within New York’s group home system throughout the pandemic.

While this advisory was mandating asymptomatic residents be returned to their group homes, agencies were struggling to stock precious personal protective equipment. While agencies had asked OPWDD for help, they were directed to their local health departments or the open market.

"This just demonstrates how little the Cuomo administration thinks of people with disabilities," said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, chair of the Assembly’s Committee on People with Disabilities. "It also demonstrates their lack of vision to see the options that they should have seen at the time."

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro is calling for an investigation into OPWDD's April 10 advisory.

Molinaro cited a study published in the October 2020 issue of the Disability and Health Journal that showed a higher risk for poor COVID-19 outcomes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, which focused on New Yorkers in residential group settings compared to the state's general population.

“Those with I/DD in residential homes were four times more likely to be infected and twice as likely to die," Molinaro said. "If people with disabilities died as a result of the same special interest derived policy that killed nursing home seniors, families and the people of New York have a right to know.”

'Government always has more to do'

Abinanti pointed to a Nov. 10, 2020 advisory from OPWDD that allowed direct-care and other staff to go back to work after a COVID exposure amid severe staff shortages, as long as they exhibited no symptoms and tracked warning signs of the virus, including taking their temperature before and during shifts.

Possibly exposed staff members were also directed to self-quarantine while not at work.

Family members rally outside the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities in Thiells, Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Jerri Lynn Sparks of Churchville said her 23-year-old son, Jared, and his fellow group home residents have been isolated several times in their residence. While he remained safe, she believes OPWDD and the Cuomo administration had failed to fully plan for all the outcomes and protect individuals' rights.

"I always want my son to have his rights that are portable," Sparks said. "They go wherever he goes." 

"There's that old saying that you can judge a society by how they treat their most vulnerable," Sparks said. "The same thing goes for agencies; the same thing goes for governors."

Abinanti said Cuomo's policies, like the controversial policy that sent sick residents back to their nursing homes, seemed to stem more from panic than science.

Tom McAlvanah, president of the board at New York Disability Advocates, gave this perspective: "A lot of the decisions that were made were not easy ones. Obviously, we're saddened by all of it." He added that more than 11,600 group home staff tested positive for COVID-19; many fell ill and some died. "Our direct-care staff were heroes."

One bright spot, McAlvanah said, was that NYDA and other advocates were successful in getting people in group homes and staff prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.

"Now over 60% of (residents) are vaccinated," McAlvanah said. "We in the advocacy community are never satisfied because we believe government always has to do more."

Nancy Cutler writes about People & Policy. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland