Stec backs COVID bill for OPWDD

Senator compares readmission order to controversial nursing home mandate

Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, speaks on the Senate floor March 5 as senators debate a bill to reduce the emergency powers they granted Gov. Andrew Cuomo a year ago as the COVID-19 pandemic began (Screenshot)

North Country state Sen. Dan Stec is seeking to revoke a policy mandating that state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities facilities must accept asymptomatic residents returning from hospitals who are still contagious with COVID-19. He said this order is similar to a now-rescinded nursing home mandate that’s drawn criticism and federal investigations.

Legislators and advocates for people with developmental disabilities worry the order has contributed to the virus spreading in OPWDD group homes and institutions, which serve approximately 34,500 residents across New York.

“It’s remarkably similar with the nursing home issue,” said Stec, R-Queensbury. “It’s a very parallel path.”

The nursing home directive was issued on March 25, 2020. After public and state opposition it was rescinded two months later on May 10. The OPWDD directive was issued between those two dates, on April 12, but is standing to this day.

“Nearly a year later, given all we’ve learned about at-risk populations, the fact that this directive remains in effect is troubling,” Stec said in a press release. “Personal protective equipment and other preventative measures only go so far. It would be much safer for residents and staff to have a negative test result before someone known to have been sick is admitted or readmitted.”

Stec has cosponsored a bill, which says “No OPWDD group home or facility shall knowingly allow a COVID positive resident to enter or reenter that facility as a temporary or permanent resident absent a negative test for COVID-19.”

Reaction and critique

Michael Carey, an advocate for people with developmental disabilities, said rescinding this rule has been a long time coming. He and other advocates have voiced opposition to the rule since it was implemented last spring.

“The governor should have never put it in place to begin with,” Carey said. “It should never have to take legislation. It’s absolutely ludicrous to put people that are COVID-positive back into group homes and it cost a lot of people their lives.”

Tupper Lake village Mayor Paul Maroun, who sits on the Board of Visitors for the Tupper Lake-based OPWDD Sunmount facility, questioned if the bill will create other problems for protecting OPWDD residents.

“The issue in my mind is there’s no where else for this person to go,” Maroun said. “The family has placed them in Sunmount, or they’ve been placed there by a judge. (They are) under the care, custody and control of Sunmount, so they have to bring them back.”

He said OPWDD facilities need to be able to quarantine returning COVID-positive residents on-campus, which he said Sunmount has done.

“There’s only a certain amount of time my insurance is going to pay for my hospital stay. Then I have to be released somewhere. It’s the same for a resident of Sunmount,” Maroun said. “There is no other place to put these clients. Their home is Sunmount.”

Stec said the “legislative intent” of this bill to to avoid putting positive people into vulnerable settings where they could spread the virus. He was not sure where OPWDD residents would go, if not OPWDD facilities, but said the language of the bill can always be amended.

He suggested taking a page out of the state Department of Corrections playbook to create segregated settings for COVID-positive individuals. This is similar to what Maroun said Sunmount has been doing.

Prisons, he said, have three sets of living quarters: ones for positive inmates, ones for inmates in quarantine and ones for the general population.

Maroun said the bill must include language allowing settings like this.

“They’ve got to put a provision in there that somebody’s got to take care of these people until they’re allowed to come back,” he said.

State and Sunmount numbers

In April 2020 OPWDD reported that 105 residents across the state had died of the COVID-19 virus. By May that number was 324. In March 2021 OPWDD reported there has been a cumulative 552 COVID-related deaths in group homes state-wide.

OPWDD has reported that more than 6,900 residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

Maroun said information he receives from the state department shows there have been 17 positive COVID-19 cases confirmed at Sunmount over the course of the pandemic, and no resulting deaths.

Others are not confident in these numbers, citing the state’s underreporting of nursing home COVID deaths.

“You can’t trust numbers that the state’s putting out,” Carey said.

Both the OPWDD and nursing home policies were made by Gov. Andrew Cuomo though executive orders allowed by his emergency COVID-19 powers. Cuomo is also under investigation for underreporting COVID-related deaths in nursing homes. Advocates and state and federal legislators wonder if the same underreporting is happening in OPWDD facilities.

“Given the governor’s reckless and reprehensible nursing home directive, and the cover up that ensued, we have reason to fear that the number of COVID-related deaths in group homes is higher than what the state has reported,” North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik said in a statement a few weeks ago.

She joined four other New York congressmembers in asking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice to investigate if this directive violates the civil rights of individuals living in group homes, and if the statistics around COVID-related deaths in OPWDD facilities are accurate.

“New Yorkers who are living with intellectual or developmental disabilities in group homes may be at an increased risk of dying from COVID-19, and they deserve protection and clarity,” Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, wrote.

Carey said the OPWDD Justice Center is not releasing the statewide COVID numbers, despite repeated Freedom of Information requests he has made.

Maroun said he trusts the numbers for Sunmount. The undercounting of deaths in nursing homes happened because the state Department of Health did not report nursing home residents who died in hospitals.

Maroun said he hopes OPWDD differentiates these deaths, adding that no Sunmount resident has died of COVID in a hospital that he knows of.

Stec said in February legislators requested to see all communications between OPWDD, the state Department of Health and the governor’s office regarding this readmission directive, but that OPWDD has not provided these documents yet. He compared this to the DOH “stonewalling” information about deaths in nursing homes.

“The lack of transparency leaves open lots of questions and concerns,” said Stec. “I have pushed for a complete end to the governor’s emergency powers and this is another example why.”

Vaccines and hard work

Maroun said 77.8% of Sunmounts residents have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

“For a number of reasons some residents can’t get it,” Maroun said. “You’re never going to get 100%. There’s some people on medications that can’t take the vaccine or there may be some family objection … or there may be a medical reason for them to not take it.”

He said 25.4% of staff there have at least one dose, but that number may be higher because OPWDD does not ask all employees if they’ve been vaccinated. It’s voluntary information.

“You’d be surprised, the staff for different reasons don’t want to take it,” Maroun said. “You can’t force them to do that.”

Maroun said there have been some breakouts of COVID in OPWDD group homes and institutions around the area, including in a group home in Massena. He said that when breakouts happen staff sometimes stay in the houses with the infected individuals, moving in while they deal with the virus and quarantine.

“We’ve got some great staff at Sunmount,” he said. “They really worked out some unique approaches to try to work through this thing.”

He said this wears people out quickly, as staff numbers are low, and results in a lot of overtime.

Maroun said he cares about this issue, because he has a cousin living in an OPWDD facility in Massena.


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