Caregiving during a pandemic: “It’s apples and eggplants.

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

Ever since Minnesota began to close schools and businesses as a way to protect against the Coronavirus, daily life has been upended for many individuals and businesses around the state. Things are especially tough for people with that depend on care providers, as well as the organizations that support them. 

Back in April, The Uptake reported a story about organizations that provide day program and employment program services for people with disabilities in Minnesota, and how many of these organizations are seeing extreme financial burdens because of Covid-19. 

Opportunity Partners operates 20 group homes across the state, in addition to supporting 200 people that live on their own in semi-independent living situations. A member of the consortium ARRM, Opportunity Partners also operate five day programs, which have been closed since Governor Tim Walz’s stay at home order was put in place. That means that staff from the day programs have been furloughed or have shifted to working in the group homes or in caring for people with disabilities who live independently. 

Opportunity Partners President & CEO Armando Camacho on a Zoom call with a person served by OP.

Opportunity Partners President & CEO Armando Camacho said the pandemic has created serious staffing challenges in order to help the people with disabilities in the organization’s programs. “What we’re seeing is that these individuals really need us more than ever, because of the 24/7 stay at home order, where individuals are at home all day,” Camacho said. “Our staffing levels have increased because we need additional support in our homes.” 

According to Camacho, the direct support sector already had challenges filling all of the needed positions, with about 18,000 open positions not being filled each year of the total 93,000 direct support jobs. With Covid-19, over 200 staff have been furloughed, others have had issues working because of lack of day care option, while the organization has also made new hires with new, stricter training protocols. “Our big focus has been covering the shifts, keeping people safe, and still providing high quality services,” Camacho said. 

Meanwhile, staff that normally would pick up overtime shifts have had to make do with less income. “One of the changes that have been made for staff is that we have eliminated overtime for financial reasons,” said Tina Eld, a Program manager at two group homes with Opportunity Partners. “This has been hard for a lot of our staff.  We have hard working staff who would often work overtime hours,” she said. 

Staff are grappling with decisions about working at all, especially in cases where homes have had confirmed cases of Covid-19. “We have long-time staff members who have had conflicting feelings. We are following all of the Department of Health’s recommendations,” Eld said. “However, people definitely are given the option to stay home if they are not comfortable coming to work during this time.” 

New Directions Inc., another group home and assisted independent living organization, has, like Opportunity Partners, seen major staffing challenges, while also seeing a reduction in revenue. “Some of our funding is shorter because some parents feel the safest place for their adult child to be is with them, so some of our houses are operating with less individual but obviously the staffing need is still there,” said Ross Kigner, CEO of New Directions. 

Coping with the uncertainty of Covid-19 is tough for many people with disabilities who are often routine-oriented. “I think it’s hard for the individuals,” said Leadership Team member-at-large Laurie Klinger. “One of the complexities is people are inside all day, except for little forays out down the sidewalk and back.” 

“We’ve seen a peak in behaviors, out of frustration and not understanding what’s going on,” said Program Director Deb Sherman, also at New Directions. “We have individuals who are just wanting to get out, get back to their normal life and can’t understand why they can’t go to their day program and proceed with their routines.” 

Like organizations that support people with disabilities, group homes and residential facilities that help older people, immunocompromised people are also seeing major challenges. 

scottie hall, who works at a group home for low-income immunocompromised individuals, many who have cognitive disabilities and/or experienced homelessness, said they have experienced quite a few changes since Covid-19 took hold. hall wears a mask for the entirety of each shift, and takes the temperature of each resident twice a day. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough N-95 masks for staff to have new ones each shift. “Most places would love to give everyone N95 masks every day,” hall said. “They literally don’t have stock and can’t get it.” 

Bobby Gregersen hits the treadmill while staff Kurt Larson cheers on his progress at his Opportunity Partners group home. Credit to Opportunity Partners.

In the meantime, staff wash their hands often, and hall will often do extra rounds putting sanitizer on all the door knobs and elevator buttons. “It’s definitely a different kind of exhaustion,” they said. 

For Renee Vaughan, who is a Life-Enrichment & Volunteer Director at a senior living facility, work has shifted almost entirely since Covid-19 hit. “It’s not even apples to oranges, it’s apples and eggplants,” she said. 

Vaughan was in charge of planning all the programming, whether that be music groups that would come in, different sorts of volunteer programs, and continuing education. All that’s over for now, and it’s been a struggle to find ways to engage folks with technology alternatives, especially those in memory care. “You can only give people so many crosswords,” she said. 

Like many care providers, Vaughan said access to PPE has been an issue. Her place of work has had Covid cases, and in those instances staff have used face shields and N-95 masks. In other cases, though, staff are re-using cloth masks. “The biggest problem is testing,” she said. “We don’t know who has it.” 

Collins Maranga, a partner at Uplifted Care Services, a home care agency, said that his business is seeing major shortages in nursing staff who care for patients at home. “We are coming in with a longstanding shortage that has been documented before this whole crisis,” Maranga said. 

When a staff is exposed, it compounds the problem, because anyone who has been exposed to the virus must quarantine for 14 days. 

Maranga said Uplifted has reached out to the Department of Health for help acquiring PPE, but its been slow going. “They sent regret because they didn’t have the supplies,” he said, adding that they did receive supplies when a patient became positive. 

Maranga also said that allowing undocumented nursing staff, who are licensed but don’t have U.S. credentials, to work would help a lot. “We could do with a lot more nurses, and more staff would be really helpful,” he said. 

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