ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) New York failed to provide desperately needed protective gear, testing and help with staffing for group homes serving residents with developmental and intellectual disabilities at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of those homes and family members told lawmakers at a legislative hearing Thursday.
Staffing levels in New York's system supporting individuals with disabilities have dwindled since the COVID-19 pandemic, which advocates say threatens the quality of care for some of the state's most vulnerable residents.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers faced calls Thursday to boost pay for group home workers, require routine COVID-19 testing and ensure people with disabilities are a priority in response plans.
Among advocates concerns is that group homes, unlike nursing homes, aren't required to regularly test staff for COVID-19 or launch rounds of testing after a resident or staffer test positive.
"It's very troubling that people in group homes aren't given the same protection as people in nursing homes and other congregate settings," said Julie Keegan, a director with Disability Rights New York. "People in group homes often have higher rates of comorbidities that put them at higher risk of death. There is no rational basis for this discriminatory practice."
At least 577 people have died due to confirmed COVID-19 infection at group residences overseen by the state's Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, according to the agency's latest data.
That tally doesn't include the number of residents who died at hospitals, or deaths of residents who likely died of COVID-19.
About 7,100 of roughly 40,000 people who live in OPWDD residences have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 11,700 staffers.
Residents of group homes in New York City saw higher rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths than other New Yorkers, according to Marco Damiani, chief executive officer of AHRC New York City, a nonprofit organization supporting children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"The rate of infection was five times the New York City rate, hospitalization was three times the rate, and the fatality rate was twice the rate of New York City," Damiani said at the Thursday hearing.
Low staffing levels and extensive use of overtime have long plagued New York group homes: OPWDD's workforce has decreased by 15% — or 4,500 employees — in recent years, according to Randi DiAntonio, vice president of the NYS Public Employees Federation.
OPWDD workers were required to go to work last spring even if they had tested positive for COVID-19, according to Joshua Terry, legislative director of CSEA Local 100.
"We were so stretched that even contracting this virus would not let them miss work, if they were healthy in other ways," Terry said. "We had members that had to float in clusters from home to home, which likely spread the disease into different homes among staff and residents."
Yvette Watts, executive director of the New York Association of Emerging & Multicultural Providers, said there's still a "very high" rate of hesitancy to get vaccinated among group home staffers, especially in Black and brown communities.
Watts said low pay doesn't help: "Many of them feel and they said it to me, 'Why should I trust someone to vaccinate me when they can't even compensate me or understand that what I do is important?'"
Meanwhile, group homes were left scrambling to purchase costly protective gear without the promise of reimbursement, while competing for everything from face masks to nurses to rapid tests.
In early 2020, State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker repeatedly assured the public that New York had enough stockpiles of medical supplies. At a Feb. 6 meeting of the state's public health and planning council, Zucker said New York could tap into "an incredible stockpile" and was "very well prepared for this response."
But some group homes were told they couldn't request protective gear from the state's stockpiles because their workplaces didn't count as "essential" health care settings, unlike hospitals, according to Disability Rights of New York attorney Alyssa Galea.
"The system of supports and services to individuals with developmental disabilities must be a priority in the same way that hospitals are a priority," Margaret Raustiala, a steering committee member for the State-Wide Family Advocacy Network of NYS, whose 50-year-old son Riko lives at a group home, said.