Coronavirus: Fears of ‘disaster’ in residential disability centres

Number of outbreaks in disability centres triples to 82 in two-week period

The virus would spread through disability centres in the same way it did nursing homes ‘if the eye was taken off the ball.’ according to Enda Egan, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland. Photograph: iStock

The virus would spread through disability centres in the same way it did nursing homes ‘if the eye was taken off the ball.’ according to Enda Egan, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland. Photograph: iStock

 

The spread of coronavirus in residential disability centres was currently contained but the congregated living facilities had the “ingredients for disaster” during an outbreak, the national organisation for people with intellectual disabilities has said.

The virus would spread through disability centres in the same way it did nursing homes “if the eye was taken off the ball,” according to Enda Egan, chief executive of Inclusion Ireland, who represent 66,000 people with intellectual disabilities.

The number of outbreaks in residential centres for people with disabilities has nearly tripled in the last two weeks, up from 32 to 82 centres. To date ten residents in disability centres have died from Covid-19.

Minister for Health Simon Harris met with Mr Egan on Monday to discuss concerns. During the meeting Mr Harris said disability centres would be given “parity and equality of access” to personal protective equipment (PPE) based on need, similar to nursing homes and hospitals, Mr Egan said.

Joanne McCarthy, Disability Federation Ireland policy officer, said clusters of coronavirus in disability centres had the potential to spread quickly and cause “catastrophe”.

Disability centres had the benefit of learning from the early mistakes in responding to outbreaks in nursing homes, and so should prioritise PPE for all staff in advance of a confirmed case, she said.

‘Significant concerns’

Ms McCarthy sits on the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) sub-group for vulnerable people, and had raised “significant concerns” at a meeting last week over the availability of PPE in disability centres.

In recent years there has been a shift from institutional settings towards smaller community houses of three or four people.

However, there are still around 2,000 people with disabilities in “old fashioned”, large congregated residential units, Ms McCarthy said. “If it takes hold in those it’s really hard to introduce self-isolation, that is one of the immediate challenges for the sector,” she said.

Sources in the sector also expressed concern that staff providing home care packages to people with disabilities living in the community were “down the pecking order” for PPE, with the result the virus could be spread by care staff if they were not properly resourced.

Ina O’Dwyer with her son Bernard Fitzpatrick (43), a long term resident in St Mary of the Angels disability centre, in Beaufort, Co Kerry. Ina has said it was ‘heartbreaking’ not to be able to visit Bernard in the centre during the current pandemic.
Ina O’Dwyer with her son Bernard Fitzpatrick (43), a long term resident in St Mary of the Angels disability centre, in Beaufort, Co Kerry. Ina has said it was ‘heartbreaking’ not to be able to visit Bernard in the centre during the current pandemic.

First-hand account

Bernard Fitzpatrick (43) has an intellectual disability and has been a resident in St Mary of the Angels centre in Beaufort, Co Kerry, since 1981. The centre is run by Saint John of Gods (SJOG), it has 67 residents and has been on lockdown to visitors since mid-March.

His mother Ina O’Dwyer said it was “heartbreaking” not to be able to visit, but staff allow them to communicate via Skype, which was a “life saver.”

As the coronavirus swept across nursing homes she had been “very concerned” about centres for people with disabilities, but said she felt “confident in the staff and that they are on top of things” in St Mary of the Angels.

Claire O’Dwyer, SJOG director of services in Kerry, said there had been two confirmed Covid-19 cases in the facility, but both residents had been isolated and had since recovered.

Congregated living settings were undoubtedly a “challenge” for infection control, but the centre monitored residents’ temperatures daily to move them into isolation beds if necessary, Ms O’Dwyer said. “It is about trying to get ahead of it all the time . . . We are in a stable position,” she said.

The centre began sourcing PPE locally from late February and had built up a “significant stockpile,” with staff now wearing masks all the time, Ms O’Dwyer said. Promised PPE deliveries from the HSE had not yet arrived and management “haven’t waited for it,” instead relying on their own stocks, she said.

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