While the coronavirus pandemic has affected New Yorkers of all stripes, people living with special needs and those who care for them have faced a particularly unique set of challenges.
OHEL and HASC each have hundreds of people with developmental and other disabilities living in their housing programs, for whom the pandemic presents a host of issues, organization staffers told Hamodia.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard,” says Hindy Hecht, director of Operations and Community Services at OHEL. A number of OHEL’s staff and clients have contracted the virus; others have been afraid to come to work for fear of getting sick.
But some of the counselors who care for residents have offered to move into the homes for weeks at a time to cover for those who can’t work and to minimize the number of people coming and going from the homes.
“These are the unsung heroes,” says Hecht, “the direct care staff who are going in and working hands on day in and day out.”
Following the strict guidelines of banning staff members who have been exposed to the disease “has put a tremendous strain on our staff,” says Yehuda Meir Horowitz, HASC development coordinator. “But coordinators and managers extended themselves, double- and triple-shifting. And we overextended ourselves financially by giving tremendous incentives to maintain a proper level of staffing.”
HASC has placed advertisements for new workers; to induce employees and express gratitude for their work, both organizations have increased staff compensation during this period.
“They are really the first responders in that type of work,” says Hecht.
Residents are typically bused to the organizations’ day-hab centers for activities and education programs. But when the city shuttered schools, the day-hab centers were closed as well. Now, OHEL and HASC have to bring the day-hab counselors into the homes for programming, much of which is done via Zoom.
Some special-needs individuals, particularly children, live with their families but go to day-hab programs; now, these people generally may not get much in-person programming, but can choose from a wealth of content that the organizations have created for their needs on Zoom.
The organizations also have support programs for families of special-needs individuals, which are being done via Zoom. A recent OHEL conference call for parents of disabled children drew 140 participants.
“Some testaments we heard there were really powerful,” says Hecht. One woman on the call has an 18-year-old son with significant disabilities and is difficult to manage. A family member had COVID-19, so OHEL could not send any counselors or therapists to the home.
The woman said, “Sundays are always my hardest day of the week with my son. Now every day is Sunday.”
OHEL has arranged online forums for the general public as well, on issues such as how elderly people can make Pesach alone, how to handle isolation and anxiety, and how to be a home-schooling mother.
“Of all the webinars,” says Hecht, “the most popular has been that of how to do levayahs and shivahs over Zoom.”
New York City is a global hotspot of the virus, and special-needs organizations have suffered from tragedies as well. Several HASC and OHEL residents have passed away from the disease.
New York state regulations enacted last month had not allowed patients to have any visitors or supporting persons, with exceptions only for pediatric patients, women giving birth, supporting persons deemed “medically necessary” and imminent end-of-life situations. Even developmentally disabled people who contracted the virus were not allowed visitors or counselors — the people who thoroughly knew their medical history and could advocate for them.
“Knowing the disability condition of these individuals,” says HASC Center chairman Abe Eisner, “even when they don’t have COVID, you can’t leave them alone in a hospital. They can’t express themselves, you need someone with them. The doctors and attendants are doing a marvelous job under these conditions, but our clients need someone who knows their condition personally to be able to explain their needs to the hospital staff.”
Eisner reached out to HASC’s Albany lobbying firm, Brown & Weinraub, in early April, asking that they advocate with the governor’s office.
“Within a few days,” says Eisner, “they said that the governor’s office is aware of the problem and working on new guidelines that would be issued shortly.”
On April 10, the state issued new guidelines for hospital support persons, clearly including in the “medically necessary” category support persons for “patients with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and patients with cognitive impairments.”
To promote social distancing, HASC’s Blanche Kahn Family Health Center, a physical and mental-health clinic for special-needs individuals, has shifted to tele-health, as has OHEL’s Marvin Kaylie Tikvah mental-health clinic, and OHEL’s counseling services and therapeutic sessions for thousands of elderly people.
OHEL’s domestic-violence shelter has been full since before Pesach, with women on the waiting list, and the problem is expected to get worse.
“It is a challenging time for women living in abusive situations,” says Hecht. “Being isolated with an abusive husband also increases stress and anxiety.”
And overall, the OHEL intake department is noting that not only have the number of calls risen, but so has their tone.
“Callers sound like they have a greater sense of urgency and desperation than usual,” says Hecht. “They are feeling isolated and depressed; so many programs they usually receive services from are closed, and it’s hitting hard — especially for people with underlying mental-health issues, who are seeing an exacerbation of symptoms.”
“But through it all, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of strength and commitment and real heroism on the part of our staff, who live to improve the lives of others. True stars come out during this time.”