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Vulnerable people living, working in Carroll’s group homes coping with coronavirus-related concerns

Target Community and Educational Services has constructed custom-built, assessible homes for its clients to live in, particularly those who will age in place, to replace older, less accessible housing, in Westminster Thursday, June 14, 2018.
Target Community and Educational Services has constructed custom-built, assessible homes for its clients to live in, particularly those who will age in place, to replace older, less accessible housing, in Westminster Thursday, June 14, 2018.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s Monday order to close all non-essential businesses in the state is the latest action taken to encourage people to stay home in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, and the illness it causes known as COVID-19.

Essential businesses and workers are exempted from the order, however, and that includes the direct support professionals working the 25 Carroll County group homes for people with developmental disabilities.

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“You hear about everyone staying home, but my staff, I need them not to stay home,” said Tom Zirpoli, president of Target Community & Educational Services, which operates eight such homes in Carroll County, each with three clients. “They are what’s keeping my clients safe and alive, doing their medications and medical routines.”

And that’s the rub, Zirpoli said.

“We are keeping our clients isolated in the house, their exposure is the staff themselves. But if I have a mother working with two kids at home, she can’t isolate with the clients,” he said. "I do have at least one live-in person per house, but one person can’t run a house with three clients. Not three shifts. One person can’t stay awake 24 hours per day."

If they cannot fully isolate their often medically vulnerable clients, Zirpoli said, Target staff would like to take extra precautions — making frequent use of disinfectants and masks should any staff member or client become ill. But that’s easier said than done, stores may be open, but, “you can’t find a mask to save your life,” he said. “Same with hand sanitizer.”

Requests to the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration for personal protective gear such as N95 masks have been acknowledged, Zirpoli said, but so far they haven’t been filled, and what few they have on hand as emergency supplies won’t last long if cases of COVID-19 really begin to swell in Carroll. He hopes there might be someone out there with a supply that could donate some.

“I know construction workers are donating masks to hospitals and all, and certainly we want our hospitals to be well supplied, but don’t forget the group homes,” Zipoli said. “A lot of very medically fragile people live in group homes and they need to be taken care of. There are over 20 in Carroll County, there are hundreds in Maryland, and they have to be supplied somehow or another.”

So far, it’s been donations that have kept Flying Colors of Success, Inc. supplied with masks for the 75 direct support professionals working at the nine group homes the nonprofit manages, according to President and CEO Michael Hardesty.

“Yesterday I was able to get a bunch of masks, they call them the N95 style, enough to distribute to all our group homes,” he said. "It was an employee’s spouse who got them through his work and they shared them with us."

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Flying Colors has also inquired with the Developmental Disabilities Administration and Carroll County Health Department about access to personal protective gear such as masks, face shields and gowns, but like Target, have not yet heard back.

“I think they are all on top of what our needs are, but we’re probably not the first priority like hospitals and ambulance crews are,” Hardesty said. “Hopefully when enough stuff gets stocked at the hospitals they will become available for secondary users like us.”

In the meantime, anyone who can make donations to Flying Colors can email Hardesty at cmhardesty@flyingcolorsofsuccess.org or call 410-876-0838 and leave a message.

“Obviously masks, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizers, paper towels, stuff like that we could always use,” he said.

The same goes for Target, according to Zirpoli, and anyone who could donate items can call 410-848-9090 to get in touch.

Sanitizers and other items that are available in limited quantities in stores could be extremely helpful, Zirpoli added, since he is trying to keep all contacts with his group homes down to a minimum. Since many stores are limiting certain purchases to one per customer, the manager of each of his group homes has to go out once a week to do the shopping that would once have been done by some of the more independent clients, but Zirpoli would prefer to be able to have just one person do all that shopping.

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“Right now we have to send eight people out to pick up one roll of disinfecting wipes each. That’s just exposing eight people instead of one,” he said. “I have talked to the manager of the [Target department store] and asked if they could get permission from their central office, if we could buy eight of everything once a week, but I haven’t heard back.”

Flying Colors is also trying to manage the contacts of staff with clients, screening staff for symptoms and taking their temperatures before they start their shifts, according to Hardesty, and keeping clients in their homes.

But the isolation is difficult on everyone, he adds, especially his more independent clients who are used to working a job.

“It has a psychological impact on all of us. We are trying to keep people home and out of the public and when you can’t even go on a ride to the grocery story as you used to doing, it adds to that sense of isolation," Hardesty said. “If you have friends and neighbors in a group home, check on them and see if there is something they need.”

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