AMES, Iowa – Missy Wierson couldn’t do anything about her 48th birthday in December because she was infected with COVID-19.
“I had to stay in my room, basically bored in my room,” said Wierson.
Her roommate Amber Kirk also contracted the virus and was unable to see her family over the holidays. She had “a very strong cough and no appetite,” she said.
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Quarantined Christmas was one of the many setbacks Wierson and Kirk, who live in a group home via Mainstream Living in Ames, faced in nearly a year with canceled plans, social distancing, and Zoom hangouts.
“That was really sad, but they did it really well,” said Judy Schieffer, the direct supporter for women at Mainstream Living, a program that helps people with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses in Ames and Des Moines.
Both women were delighted when they received their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m so glad I got it,” said Wierson.
Maintaining a high risk population
Approximately 700,000 Americans with intellectual or developmental disabilities live in a supervised residential setting commonly referred to as a group home. As in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, people living in group homes are at high risk for COVID-19 due to the underlying medical conditions, cohabitation, and close contact with caregivers. However, the federal government does not expect outbreaks in group homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who, according to studies, die two to three times more often from COVID-19 than people without such disabilities.
Mainstream Living’s Pandemic Emergency Group prepared to protect a vulnerable population and implemented security measures in March last year. Daytime post-doc programming in The Center building has been canceled. Visits were restricted to all homes and offices. Families were encouraged to take their children home for a few weeks if they had the means.
“We knew that five members, and then typically two to four people, depending on their location and time of day, would create a rather risky environment in a life situation,” said Amber Corrieri, communications director for Mainstream Living.
According to Corrieri, around 40 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since March last year. Seven residents had to be hospitalized. One resident, a woman who lives in a Des Moines group home, died of the virus.
“This has been incredibly difficult, especially for the staff and other members at this particular location,” Corrieri said.
As the pandemic has widened, better understanding of how COVID-19 spread has helped contain outbreaks, Corrieri said, so a positive test doesn’t necessarily result in disease for the entire household. Masks are worn by anyone who can. Staff wear face shields when helping residents brush their teeth or use the toilet.
The leadership team has since lifted some restrictions. Residents can visit the family and vice versa, although the number of meetings is limited. When it was warmer outside, residents took socially distant trips to local parks, rose gardens, and apple orchards.
Corrieri said that in taking precautionary measures, the leadership team is focusing on “ensuring that the rights of our members and those we serve continue to be a priority”.
“We strongly believe in the value of making sure that people with disabilities are fully integrated into their community – work, live, play, just like the rest of us,” she said.
Adaptation to a “new normal”
Some of the group’s residents have spent much more time indoors than they are used to and miss hanging out with friends in other homes and attending the Special Olympics. In some cases, they miss their job.
Wierson and Kirk previously worked at DanFoss as part of Mainstream Living’s employment assistance program, which was suspended to reduce residents’ virus exposure.
“I was really sad because I couldn’t see my friends,” said Wierson, saying that I had to stop working.
Prior to the pandemic, direct support professional Rachel Stone worked in the daytime postgraduate program and was “always very active,” she said. Stone understands when residents feel bored or understated because she feels the same way sometimes.
“When I had these feelings, it was almost difficult for me to step aside and put on my DSP shoes,” said Stone. “It’s like a whole new part of our role … emotional support has always been a part of our work, but it seems like it’s so much more now.”
Over time, employees and residents “have slowly adjusted to this new normal,” Stone said. There were lots of puzzles, crafts, baking and board games. A weekly “quarantine and chill” via Zoom keeps the residents in touch.
“We talk and say hello to our other friends and stuff in different places,” said Kirk.
With the daytime rehabilitation program canceled, staff in the homes it supports are more isolated, Stone said. But on Facebook they often reach each other, “hold each other up and praise each other for good ideas … because everyone needs a little more positivity at the moment.”
Despite the added stress of COVID-19, Schieffer, who works with Wierson and Kirk, “can’t imagine doing anything else”.
“I feel like I’m doing the work of my heart,” said Schieffer.
A few weeks ago the three of them built a snowman together. But instead of a carrot for a nose, they decorated his face with a face mask.
© 2021 Ames Tribune
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