Some group homes getting COVID-19 vaccine for residents with disabilities, others waiting

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

Jeffrey White called his mother from the group home where he lives in North Fort Myers to share the day’s big event.

“I got my shot,” he told his mother, Barbara White, 84.

Her 62-year-old son with developmental disabilities received his first dose of vaccine against COVID-19 on Jan. 14.

“He was quite proud,” his mother said. “He said it didn’t hurt.”

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White is among a dozen residents of two group homes run by LARC Inc. in Lee County, a service agency for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who received their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine, according to Kevin Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

About eight staff members of the North Shore home and the second home, Cape Coral Community Residence, also got the vaccine to help ward off infection from the deadly virus.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities who live in group homes are vulnerable to the virus and often have compromised immune systems or co-morbidities that elevate risk, he said.

Group homes like those run by LARC and are licensed by the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities are included in Florida’s vaccine plan as a first priority group, similar to residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, Lewis said.

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Jeffrey White, 62, a resident of North Shore, a group home in North Fort Myers run  by LARC Inc., an agency that provides services for people with developmental disabilities. Submitted by LARC.

“You have to be somewhat proactive and apply,” Lewis said.

In Lee County, 461 individuals live in 79 group homes licensed by the state agency.

Another 66 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities live in 11 licensed group homes in Collier, according to state data.

Florida is one of 10 states that explicitly addressed people with developmental disabilities living in intermediate-care facilities in vaccination plans, according to a December 2020 report by the American Network of Community Options and Resources, an advocacy organization.

Most states were vague in their wording or overlooked individuals with developmental disabilities and that is risky, according to the report.

“This oversight has the potential for damning effects on the safety and well-being of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities given the precarious situation in which they find themselves during this pandemic,” the report said.

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What LARC did

LARC received an email in October about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s program to vaccinate residents in long-term care facilities and other congregate-living settings, Lewis said.

The CDC program partners with CVS or Walgreens to provide the vaccine on-site. LARC worked with the state agency and applied with Walgreens, he said.

Walgreens’ pharmacists were originally scheduled to come at the end of the month but they became available earlier, Lewis said.

The vaccines were given at LARC’s main campus in Fort Myers.

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Jeffrey White understands what the virus is all about and why North Shore put precautions in place, his mother said. That included suspending visitation and no outings to bowling or movies that he and the other four residents enjoyed.

“He is very good about social distancing and wearing his mask,” she said.

White had not seen her son in person from March until October when he resumed coming home for weekends.

Jeffrey White, 62, is a resident of North Shore group home in North Fort Myers run by LARC, a nonprofit agency in Lee County that provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Submitted by LARC.

“I was not worried because I knew they were very good and very safe,” she said. “It was difficult not being able to have him come home. He had to be safe. We had to be safe. We are isolating.

Another resident of North Shore, Sonja Wilburg, 47, also was vaccinated, said her mother, Jeanni Wilburg. Sonja has cerebral palsy and is legally blind.

“I was so surprised they got it,” Jeanni Wilburg, 78, said. “I am very blessed and I feel relief.”

Sonja Wilburg, 47, is a resident of North Shore Community Residence, a group home in North Fort Myers for individuals with developmental disabilities. The home is run by LARC, an agency in Lee County that provides services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Submitted  by LARC.

They call the needle a “poke” for the COVID-19 vaccine or for the flu shot.

“She said, ‘Mom, I got a poke’ and I said, ‘Good for you,’” Wilburg said.

Her daughter listens intently to what the house manager says about being safe against the virus and they’ve all been tested for the virus several times, Wilburg said.

She hopes getting the vaccine means a gradual return to normal activities. Wilburg sits on the group home’s porch every Sunday to visit with her daughter who sits inside the doorway.

Did you know?:Florida limits COVID-19 vaccine to state residents only

By the way:Vaccine shortage hindering hospital employee inoculations in Lee and Collier

Some group homes still waiting

Not all residents of group homes licensed by the state have gotten the vaccine, according to several home managers in Collier.

Yuneisi Armario, who runs two group homes, Naples Home Care Services, with her husband in eastern Collier, said they are waiting for information from the state agency.

“They told us I will get an email,” she said. “I have not heard yet. I have some families asking me about the vaccine.”

Each group home has six residents and they range in age from 21 to 78.

Dianna Clarke, who operates the Michael and Dianna Clarke Group Home in eastern Collier, said she and her husband are also waiting to hear from the state.

“So far nobody here has been vaccinated,” she said, adding that some of her four residents have medical conditions that place them at high risk to the virus.

The residents watch the news and are aware of the pandemic and what it is doing, she said. One resident had a job at Publix but stopped when the pandemic worsened. Two of her residents are 18 and are in school virtually; the others are 39 and 56.

“I am very protective of them,” Clarke said. “I know they wouldn’t be able to fight it.”

Clarke wants them to get the vaccine, if the families agree, and she’s confident the state agency will help out.

“I am not frustrated,” she said. “Whatever way they can help us I know they will help us. They are very good with that.”

Others face hardships

Others with developmental disabilities are hard pressed to get the vaccine because they don’t live in state licensed group homes, according to Sheryl Soukup, founder of Residential Options of Florida, ROOF, in Southwest Florida.

Her organization provides “supportive housing” for 19 people with developmental disabilities in Collier, Lee and Charlotte counties.

That falls outside of the “group home” classification and residents in supportive housing are not eligible for the vaccine as the priority group in long-term care facilities, she said.

The state has roughly 472,644 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and 75% of them, or 352,729 individuals, live with their families or caregivers, data shows.

There is another avenue for individuals who live outside of group homes to get vaccinated but it’s proving tough, she said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order for the vaccine allows hospitals to vaccinate people under 65 with co-morbidities that put them at high risk of the virus, she said.

The catch is hospitals don’t have enough doses to do that, she said.

“That is the reality,” Soukup said. “It is very challenging.”

She has spoken with officials at NCH Healthcare System in Collier; NCH confirmed that 1,200 doses allocated so far for the community have been used, NCH spokeswoman Amanda Lucey said in an email.

“As soon as we get notification on when we will receive more vaccines we will certainly let the community know, and we will share our plan of action for vaccinating those with co-morbidities,” Lucey said. “We will also work with community leaders like (Soukup) to help get the word out and coordinate efforts.”

The state agency is pleased residents in group homes are getting the vaccine and is advocating for all clients to get it, Michael Taylor, operations manager for the agency’s Suncoast region, said in an email.

Taylor said he is not aware of any individuals with developmental disabilities who live outside of licensed group homes who have received the vaccine.