For a population that typically struggles with social isolation, what is their “new normal” going to look like as COVID restrictions lift across the state? Strive2Thrive program staff at Incompass Human Services have been working to evolve the program, to better meet the needs of the population of young adults on the autism spectrum without an intellectual disability that we support.
From the beginning, socialization was a core aspect of Strive2Thrive, as well as peer mentorship and self-advocacy. Connecting with peers in their age group while building the skills they need to participate in recreational activities has been an invaluable asset for participants. Such activities acted as a bridge between social isolation and ultimately leading more full, productive, and satisfying lives in the community. Activities that initially drew participants to this program included game show nights, escape rooms, and a zombie scavenger hunt. Even a silent disco that was postponed last year – a sensory-friendly dance where participants listen to music on wireless headphones.
However, access to these types of activities was unfortunately halted by the onset of the pandemic. In response, Alicia Pagan, program manager, and Ben Waithe, ASD Specialist, got creative with a hybrid program model that utilized both in-person and virtual supports.
“Our participants are eagerly anticipating in-person connections, but now that we’ve removed a barrier to virtual sessions, we see a future where S2T participants are more engaged than ever before, and our reach will be only wider.” Pagan notes that participants will get so much more out of the community-based experiences because they are also able to connect with their peer mentors over Zoom. “Now that participants and mentors don’t need to rely on time during our community events to connect, they’re able to further immerse themselves in the social recreation!”
With everything from healthcare to education being transitioned to remote supports, program staff were concerned about “Zoom fatigue”. There was an enhanced focus on creating unique, interactive experiences with the resources available. Virtual concerts, road trips, and Netflix parties were huge hits. As well as themed trivia nights – incorporating fan favorites such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.
While the pandemic has undoubtedly brought challenges, it has also created room for new ways of thinking. Going forward supports to be included in the proposed service model will include life coaching, self-advocacy training, and group recreational activities. And what does Pagan think about these developments? “There is no substitute for being in the community, so we’re going to embrace the hybrid model. And personally, I can’t wait to see the impact.”
The Chairman of the COVID task force, Al Frugoli, sent the message below to Incompass staff last week on January 28, 2021.
Dear Care Champions:
The numbers are in! We were able to vaccinate 177 staff and individuals this week during our vaccination clinics with Long Term Pharmacy Solutions (LTPS)! Woohoo!!! We are so grateful that so many of you were able to receive the first dose of the vaccine this week, and we will be in touch with details for the February booster shot clinics in the coming weeks.
In this week’s task force update, we’re sharing a recap of our first Incompass vaccine clinics, important resources on the statewide vaccination process, and updates on our own COVID protocols.
The Vaccine Clinic:
The LTPS team has conducted a number of these clinics, and remarked on how impressed they were with our team! The clinical tandem of Alicia Mordach and Chris Snell specifically want to recognize a few members of the team who went above and beyond to ensure we had a smooth process:
The consensus among Care Champions was some sore arms the next day for sure, but no major side-effects from the shot. Our group home residents were fortunate that our highly-skilled residential nursing team was in the observation room keeping an eye on them after their shot and monitoring them this week:
For those who couldn’t attend and wish to be vaccinated, all individual-facing Incompass staff are now eligible to receive the vaccine under the latest Phase 1 guidelines. While we’re actively working with LTPS to procure more doses for another clinic, at this time we don’t know when – or if – we’ll be able to hold another one. The state has opened numerous vaccine clinics where eligible members of the population can sign up to be vaccinated. While not every clinic requires it, if you need proof of employment, you can reach out to human resources.
You can view a list of vaccine clinic locations here, and download the self-attestation form for eligibility here. I recommend you pay close attention to the criteria at each individual site, as some are restricted to residents of a town/city or are only serving senior citizens. Nearly all of them require an appointment to be made in advance through the listed website as well; they aren’t accepting walk-ins. The Governor announced this week that he anticipates having 165 clinics statewide by the end of next month, so check back regularly as more sites in our area hopefully come online.
COVID Safety Protocols, Testing, and Updates:
Remember, while this is an important step forward, everyone who has received the vaccine must continue to follow all of the COVID protocols at Incompass. The vaccine does not prevent the spread of coronavirus, so wearing a mask, socially distancing, reporting symptoms, etc. is critical to protect not only yourself but those around you. (And remember that KN95 masks must be worn at all times in program areas.) We’ll continue to do this #ForEachOther, as the health and safety of all of you and the people you support remains our top priority.
On that note, day programs in our Parker Street facility were suspended yesterday for 14 days after we got word of a positive staff test on Monday. The staff member is asymptomatic but had reported interactions with each of our three Parker cohorts in the days prior to the positive test. We are following our own protocols around exposure – meaning that each of the cohorts and respective DSPs are undergoing testing and need to isolate until February 8 to prevent an outbreak. The day program facilities will also undergo a deep cleaning during this period. We are working on engaging with our participants virtually over the next two weeks to help with the transition, and look forward to welcoming them back!
These are difficult decisions, but taking the necessary precautions is our best defense against an outbreak. And your continued cooperation and vigilance is absolutely a key reason for our success.
That’s all for this week! Keep getting tested. Keep being vigilant. Keep self-reporting. And keep being hopeful. While Chelmsford and Lawrence remain in the “high-risk” designation, the statewide positivity rate dropped below 5.0% last week for the first time since November, and we’re hopeful that’s a sign of things to come. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that we will gather again someday and it will be something to celebrate!
Employment has continued to be a hot topic throughout the pandemic – whether it be layoffs, furloughs, transitioning to remote work, or lack of opportunity. Though mainstream media tends to exclude persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities from their discussions, they too have been hit especially hard by these same challenges. It seems fitting to start this conversation during National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
The U.S. Department of Labor announced that the 2020 theme for NDEAM would be increasing access and opportunity.
“People with disabilities are experienced problem solvers with a proven ability to adapt,” said Office of Disability Employment Policy Deputy Assistant Secretary, Jennifer Sheehy. “Now more than ever, flexibility is important for both workers and employers. NDEAM celebrates the ingenuity people with disabilities bring to America’s workplaces.”
That is where the Incompass Employment Services program comes in. Meet Charlie, who started on the path to employment nearly four years ago. Our specialists helped him find his place in the Hannah Duston family, and the rest is history. Charlie’s favorite part of working is kitchen duty where he is tasked with unloading and loading the dishwasher and delivering food within the healthcare facility. He does his job with pride and his supervisor has nothing but high praise for Charlie.
Unfortunately, for those who live in group home settings, increased COVID-19 protocols have created a barrier to employment. In order to ensure the continued safety of not only the individual but their housemates, many are restricted from returning to work. Using guidance from the Department of Developmental Services, human services agencies and families have made the decision to err on the side of caution to reduce exposure. But that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Aldrin, our employment specialist, is dedicated to finding suitable employment where individuals can remain safe but fulfilled. Charlie is a shining example of such a possibility.
We were thrilled to have our very own Anibal, Scott and Fernando featured in a photoshoot series that spotlights the lives of everyday people living through the pandemic. This social movement began with two Boston-based photographers who launched The Front Steps Project,and soon it swept the nation.
Adjusting to the “new normal” has been especially difficult for the residents in our group homes. The drastic change in their routines can lead to heightened feelings of isolation. What better way to counteract that than with some good ol’ socially distant fun! A few of the shots from the photoshoot are included below – keep your eyes peeled for the rest.
LifeLinks CLASS partnered with Fallon Health last Friday, August 21 to host a pop-up COVID-19 testing site at our main office in Chelmsford. This was one of the largest testings that Fallon has completed to date, with nearly 400 participants.
The Department of Developmental Services (DDS) has various area offices located across Massachusetts. Individuals who receive services under DDS were encouraged to register for the testing, as well as the staff who work for human services agencies in this region. LifeLinks CLASS Care Champions took the lead on getting tested #ForEachother in order to ensure the continued safety of everyone we support.
A big thank you to our Care Champions, Stacie and Melanie, for coordinating this pop-up!
No worries if you missed this opportunity — there will be an additional seven pop-up testing sites in the near future! The details on dates and locations will be available at a later date.
LifeLinks CLASS was pleased to receive a grant from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation (GLCF) as part of its Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund. The vulnerable population that we support was hit especially hard during the pandemic, with the sudden suspension of day programs and community-based activities. This critical support has allowed us to continue to provide high-quality residential care and virtual supports to the LifeLinks CLASS community.
Without the generosity of funders, such as GLCF, we would not have been able to sustain an essential workforce comprised of nearly 180 direct support professionals, program nurses, and managers. Adapting during these challenging times has required a new level of investment in staffing, technology, and PPE.
“The care champions of LifeLinks CLASS truly are on the front lines of the community’s COVID-19 response, providing critical services and supports to 800 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families,” says CEO Jean Phelps.
As we navigate the resumption of facility-based day programs, our top priority remains the safety and wellbeing of our program participants, caregivers, and staff. “I am in awe of the unwavering commitment and dedication of our Care Champions throughout the pandemic,” says Michael Bloom, LifeLinks CLASS Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer. “I eagerly continue to seek additional opportunities to support the mission, vision, and sustainability of LifeLinks CLASS.”
Group home residents and staff pose for a picture during our Care Champions Caravan, honoring their incredible work during the COVID-19 crisis.