Working in the field of human services offers many rewards and challenges. The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic added new and more complex challenges to working in this field. At a time when personal safety and health has been carefully guarded, dedicated residential workers prioritized the health and well-being of their clients over themselves and found new ways to ensure a safe and secure home setting.
“Everything has changed,” said Barbara Costanzo, Program Manager for Options for Community Living, Inc. “We’ve had to figure out how to do this job in a very different way.”
Options operates 26 homes licensed by the NYS Office of Mental Health for adults recovering from mental illness. Five of these homes are staffed 24/7 to ensure a safe, supportive environment. As uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus grew, employees began to brainstorm ideas to keep the residents safe and informed about what they were facing. Staff and residents were flexible and open to change including virtual visits with mental healthcare and medical providers utilizing telehealth systems. Staff support was critical for residents feeling isolated or apprehensive about new procedures but with each passing day, these challenges became more manageable.
The staff at the East Islip community residence resolved to reduce exposure by implementing a radical schedule change.
“We started our quarantine about a week before everyone stopped reporting to the [administrative] office,” said Ashley Cole, East Islip Program Supervisor. “My staff were very concerned about the clients experiencing unnecessary exposure.” In line with CDC guidelines, they limited visitors, increased cleaning regimens, hand washing and social distancing early on.
“I have both staff and residents that are immunocompromised,” said Cole. “It’s very important that we don’t bring anything home to our families, and that we don’t bring anything from home here.”
Ultimately, they decided the best way to protect the residents was to revamp the schedule which involved changing from eight-hour days, five days a week to 13-hour days three days a week. Still providing coverage 24/7, this reduced the number of staff coming and going. All the employees agreed to commit to the schedule which combined with all the other precautionary measures may have helped them avoid any positive cases.
Another Options community residence unfortunately had a COVID-19 positive case early on and despite precautionary measures was unable to avoid a viral outbreak.
“We were hit hard by COVID-19, with many of my staff out at the same time”, said Melissa May, Program Supervisor.
Going into April, eleven out of fourteen employees that staffed the residence were unable to work due to illness or the need to quarantine. Extended shifts and additional coverage ensured daily operations, but as new COVID-19 positive cases emerged, residents experienced increased anxiety and distress.
“We relied on each other to make sure that the house was still run as it normally would. At the same time, we had a few clients test positive, so we were trying to make sure that they were taken care of and that their [mental health] care wasn’t negatively impacted.”
The staff reinforced coping and communication skills, to help the residents adjust to changes in the home. Many found comfort in art projects and long walks as the weather improved. Slowly, staff that had been ill or quarantining returned to work and a team once so fractured by illness became whole again.
“Getting through this has been a group effort,” said May. “We are here to help people with serious mental illness and at the same time help them get through a pandemic. It is hard on everyone, but it’s very hard on us.”
“Our residents are doing great, and the reason is because the staff is great and that’s the bottom line,” said Barbara Costanzo. “I couldn’t be prouder of them.”