Group homes for those with disabilities hit hard by coronavirus

BOSTON — Boston 25 News has reported extensively on the rampant spread of COVID-19 in our state's nursing homes.

Now, we’re shining a light on another group of at-risk people: those with intellectually and developmental disabilities living in group homes. More than 9,000 adults live in Department of Developmental Service group homes. Children also live in group homes.

Group homes in the state were locked down for close to three months and families were only allowed to video chat with their adult children in order to try to keep the novel coronavirus out of these “congregate living” facilities where individuals are living together in close quarters and sickness can spread more quickly.

After months of only being only allowed to video chat, Tom and Christine Hubbard were finally able to visit their 33-year-old son Ned again outside of his residential home run by Amego in Westborough.

Ned has autism and his verbal communication is limited. His family says he doesn’t understand social distancing and won’t wear a mask.

“An individual like Ned would not understand the sense of a precaution, [he wouldn’t understand] ‘I shouldn’t be getting close to mom or dad or my house staff,‘” said Tom Hubbard, Ned’s dad.

Despite the lockdown, two out of Ned’s four housemates came down with the novel coronavirus. They weren’t sick enough to go to the hospital so they stayed in the group home and continued to be cared for by staff.

Ned was treated as a presumed positive because he was uncooperative with a swab test.

"It's been scary for sure," said Tom Hubbard.

“I think I’ve had rolling fears so it’s hard to say which one is the biggest one, I mean truly the biggest fear was that he would get so sick that he would need to be hospitalized and there would be no ability to have a family member or a staff with him there to help translate for him,” said Christine Hubbard, Ned’s mom.

Individuals with autism and other disabilities may be part of the population who gets sicker from the novel coronavirus than the general population. They often have what’s known as “co-morbid” medical conditions that can make them more susceptible to illness, including COVID-19. Ned gets seizures, and his parents say he doesn’t register a fever so temperature checks may not be a reliable way to screen him for COVID-19.

“He’s only maybe 2 or 3 times in his life run a fever,” said Christine.

Amego, the facility which operates Ned's home, also operates dozens of other residential facilities in Massachusetts.

Amego’s President and CEO, John Randall, says despite equipping staff with PPE and taking numerous precautions to date 46 Amego residents and 71 staff have tested positive for the virus.

“Some of our kids and some of our adults too are on immuno-boosters,” said Randall. “They are more medically fragile and we really try to isolate the folks as best we can.”

Statewide, the Department of Developmental Services tells Boston 25 that 1,575 adult residents have tested positive as of early June and 98 adults have died.

It’s not just adults.

Although the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) could not tell us how many children in the state’s group homes contracted the novel coronavirus, Boston 25 News has learned one facility, the New England Center for Children in Southborough, had 15 of their students and 19 of their staff tested positive.

All have recovered.

The students were brought to another building and were isolated, while dedicated staff in full PPE cared for the children around the clock. The children’s families were still not allowed to visit them, in an effort to contain the virus.

Melissa and Chris Beck's 16-year-old son, Owen, lives in one of the New England Center for Children's residential homes.

Like the Hubbards, the Becks weren't able to hug Owen for 96 days because of a lockdown there.

“Owen himself had had some symptoms at one point so they had quarantined him in the house which isn’t easy to do with 9 kids and 6 adults and 3 bedrooms so he had to stay in his bedroom for a week, a full week. Chris said it was a scary situation.

The Becks finally got to hold Owen again, recently, after almost three months of video chats.

As restrictions continue to loosen, the Becks and the Hubbards are looking forward to eventually bringing their children home again on weekends.

But, with concerns over a second wave of COVID-19, they’re praying the public will continue social distancing for the safety of this vulnerable population, and for the safety of their own kids.

“Everybody’s health actually is dependent on everybody’s health so you have to look at not just your own situation in a given moment but you really have to be responsible and as careful as can be knowing that while something may feel ok for you at a given time, that there’s somebody else out there,” said Christine. “There’s lots of people that have health issues, that have compromised immune systems.”

Amego, the Hubbards and the Becks say the staff at these residential facilities have also been some of the unsung heroes of this pandemic.

Many have worked extra shifts and have worn full PPE during their shifts, risking their own health to support this vulnerable population.

To date, more than 1,800 staff members at group homes in the state have tested positive for COVID-19 and three staff members have died.