Sick with COVID-19 and Managing Social Services in New York City
Monday, April 13, 2020
The back pain wasn’t entirely unusual for Adam Lancer, he says. But then his wife, Dina, ran a fever of over 102 degrees and he soon followed with a fever of 101. Some of their seven children followed suit.
Lancer didn’t need a medical degree to believe the couple had COVID-19. He was never tested, and there was little need after her test came back positive.
But as general counsel and compliance officer for one of the New York City area’s largest social service agencies, there was little down time for Lancer. He had to keep working to ensure the safety and health of staff and clients, he says.
“Thankfully just a fever and it went away,” he says. “But I know quite a few people who are very sick.”
OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services provides residential housing, outpatient counseling, day programs and job skill training. It works with children and adults with psychiatric and developmental disabilities throughout New York City and Long Island.
About 13,000 people annually receive some form of care or service from OHEL’s staff of 1,200, Lancer says. Those programs and residences have been threatened by the pandemic that’s walloped New York.
“There’s no playbook with this issue … It’s all new for us and the government. Of course, our priority is to do what’s best for our clients.”
As of April 13, the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Center listed more than 104,000 COVID-19 cases in New York City and almost 6,900 deaths were reported.
Lancer was already working from home when he got ill, challenged by the virus that’s upended how OHEL provides its services.
“There’s no playbook with this issue,” Lancer says. “It’s all new for us and the government. Of course, our priority is to do what’s best for our clients.”
Staff are using video or phone instead of in–person visits to deliver nonresidential care services, therapies and case management. It’s not ideal, and not preferable to the providers, but it’s the best the agency can do and is encouraged by the government, Lancer says.
“Before this began, I didn’t know what a Zoom meeting was. Now we’re all using it,” he adds.
It’s a similar story in other places, with British Colombia temporarily loosening privacy protections so that hospitals can use communication technology to care for patients.
“The one positive item that has emerged is to see staff come together at all hours of the day and night,” Lancer says. “We’re located throughout New York and New Jersey, sitting in our bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. We strategize and do what we can to help the clients.”
In the 30 residences it operates for about 400 people, OHEL staff are screened for temperature and COVID-19 symptoms when they arrive to work, all consistent with government requirements.
Throughout the day, they’re responsible for checking residents, some of whom are nonverbal and otherwise cognitively limited. Staff also follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for sanitizing; and the homes have been well-provisioned with cleaning products and gloves, Lancer says. Food deliveries are left outside—only staff and residents can enter.
While complying with new rules and restrictions, Lancer says he’s also challenged by changing labor rules and Family Medical Leave Act issues because staff are not allowed to come in if they aren’t feeling well.
“The direct care staff who come to work every day to care for the clients, oftentimes at the expense of being with their own families, are the true heroes, much like our doctors and nurses. We hold them in the highest admiration,” Lancer says.
Financially, OHEL has taken a hit, too. While some services and therapies can be shifted to video and audio formats, the agency bills insurers and the government based on services provided. In a shuttered city, there are services that are not able to be provided, Lancer notes.
Lancer and his wife having both recovered from the virus, he says their illness was relatively minor.
“We’ve had a couple of things like Hurricane Sandy and some snowstorms on a small scale,” he says “Those have led to some staffing crunches and administrative challenges. Sometimes we’ve had to evacuate because of water or other damages. But there’s been nothing on this scale and it’s not just lasting one or two days. This is a prolonged issue.”
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