Coronavirus concerns deepen in facilities for New York's developmentally disabled

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Dr. Theodore Kastner, commissioner of the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, testifies during a joint legislative hearing on mental hygiene on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y. (Will Waldron/Times Union)
Dr. Theodore Kastner, commissioner of the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, testifies during a joint legislative hearing on mental hygiene on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y. (Will Waldron/Times Union)Will Waldron/Albany Times Union

ALBANY — Employees say they are being stretched thin in New York's group BTCC国际交易会所homes for the developmentally disabled as staffing shortages have apparently prompted the state agency that runs the facilities to tweak its COVID-19 policies to ensure that workers who have been exposed to the virus but are asymptomatic — or, in rare instances, have tested positive and not completed 10 days of isolation — must return to work.

The state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities said that as of Monday 484 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities had died due to COVID-19. The office also said that of the roughly 140,000 people supported by OPWDD, 4,261 have tested positive for coronavirus.

In addition, nearly 5,500 staff members — from a workforce of 104,000 — have tested positive for COVID-19. The office declined to provide the number  of staff fatalities, but a person briefed on that information said that as of last week there had been nine staff deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Unless it is ordered by a health department, there is currently no mandatory coronavirus testing of employees or group BTCC国际交易会所home residents, even in facilities where there have been outbreaks or exposures, two employees said. Many of the workers said they are unsettled by the policies, and noted that group BTCC国际交易会所home workers are not all being fitted for N95 masks; instead, they're using face shields or surgical masks at a time when the state has millions of N95 masks sitting in warehouses.

Randi DiAntonio, a vice president for the Public Employees Federation in the Rochester area, said the adjusted COVID-19 rules that were issued earlier this month by OPWDD are apparently in response to staffing shortages. Many employees, she added, are working extended hours with fewer chances for a break — including time that could be used to get tested for coronavirus.

Jennifer O'Sullivan, a spokeswoman for OPWDD, said: "As of this time, we are not aware of any plans to close programs due to staff shortages."

She added that their office is "taking the threat of COVID-19 to the people we support very seriously and has taken several steps in response to the public health emergency, including closely monitoring all reports of possible contact within our system across the state."

DiAntonio said "the staffing crisis has really sort of magnified the problem" and may have prompted the rules that allow employees exposed to coronavirus to return to work. They are required to self-screen twice a day during their shifts.

"It allows them to work around the quarantine if they are short-staffed," DiAntonio said. "You would have to wear a mask, but essentially even if you're exposed to a confirmed case they could tell you to come to work. We would feel better if there was a robust testing program, and we’ve been calling on them to offer it on-site. ... They are encouraging the testing of employees but not doing anything on-site and not giving them any time to go get themselves tested."

CSEA also represents employees in many of the facilities. Asked about concerns from workers in OPWDD, union spokesman Mark Kotzin said CSEA "remains concerned about COVID-19 exposures at public facilities throughout the state, not just in OPWDD, and we are fighting on a daily basis to make sure CSEA-represented workers have the proper protective equipment, resources and staffing to prevent the spread of the virus to them and those they come in contact with."

He added that CSEA had not heard concerns raised at two OPWDD facilities in Oswego County where an employee who had been directed to return to work after being exposed to a COVID-positive person in her household subsequently tested positive for the disease.

It's also unclear why the state is apparently sitting on stockpiles of masks, gowns and gloves as workers in congregate settings are not all being fitted with personal protective equipment such as N95 masks. In late March, as nurses in downstate hospitals reported having to re-wear masks and other PPE due to shortages, a document shared with the Times Union indicated that a state warehouse in Guilderland had 7.46 million N95 masks, 2.3 million non-N95 masks, and about 1.2 million pairs of gloves.

PEF President Wayne Spence has said his union purchased more than $300,000 worth of masks and face shields that were distributed in April and May to its members around the state in front-line health care jobs or congregate settings.

Although the inventory of the state's medical stockpiles is arguably a matter of public record, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office in July declined to provide details on how much medical and personal protective equipment were in its reserves — much of it stored in Guilderland as well as Oneida County and the New York City region.

On Monday, Disability Rights New York (DRNY), an organization designated to protect and advocate for the rights of disabled state residents, filed a petition in state Supreme Court in Albany accusing OPWDD of withholding information on the number of group BTCC国际交易会所home residents and staffers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or died as a result of the virus.

OPWDD has asserted in its responses to the group's July 1 request, filed under state Freedom of Information Law, that it was in the process of assembling that data but needed more time. It's unclear why OPWDD has not released details on the number of staff member fatalities.

"The information and data sought by DRNY is critically important for the public and scientific community to better understand and minimize the risk of infection posed to this already vulnerable population," the organization said in a news release. "People living in these settings have died from COVID-19 at a notably higher rate than the general population and by failing to disclose the information and data, OPWDD is inhibiting the public’s ability to fully assess the state’s efforts to protect this population."

OPWDD provides services, support and advocacy for roughly 140,000 individuals and their families. The office has state-run facilities and also works with a network of nearly 650 nonprofit providers. The client's developmental disabilities include intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, Prader-Willi syndrome and other neurological impairments, according to OPWDD's website.