Mental Health Boards Aid Congregate Settings in Virus Outbreak

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Talk of preventing spread of the coronavirus in congregate settings like long-term care facilities and prisons are typical topics at Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily briefings, but little discussion is given to community settings like adult group homes, recovery houses and homeless shelters.

Staff members of mental health and recovery boards are driving as far as Akron and Columbus scrounging for gloves, masks and cleaning products for congregate sites that house hundreds of people in the region.

“Last week Lori [Colian, staff member] drove to Columbus to pick up 2,200 hand soaps donated by Bath and Body Works and we’re contacting our residential facilities and recovery houses,” says Marcy Patton, executive director of Columbiana County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. “We’re handing it out first to our mental health and substance provider groups.”

April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull Mental Health and Recovery Board, says the board has residential care centers, the Amos Christy House homeless shelter, Someplace Safe domestic violence shelter and provider housing units in its purview.

“We’re purchasing cleaning products, masks, gloves from the state and wherever we can get it,” she says. “The Ohio [chapter of the] National Alliance on Mental Illness made some donations and someone from my staff drove to Columbus Friday to pick up cleaning supplies. If we can find it we’re going to get it.”

Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, says early on he ordered 30,000 gloves and he has been giving them out to providers, other boards and to the local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness. He says Hope Haney, director of the chapter, and her staff have been checking in on the county’s group homes and Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley. 

“NAMI is an important part of our system. During this crisis they have provided enormous support to our consumers living in some of these private homes,” Piccirilli says.

Residential care centers, often referred to as group homes, often have three to 16 adults. The centers provide a room, meals and may include personal care or mental health services, supervision and social services, but treatment services are provided separately. There are 10 group homes in Columbiana County and 11 in both Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

Recovery houses are privately owned housing units that provide temporary housing for people who are involved in outpatient recovery programs for substance abuse and alcoholism. 

The board directors are involved in discussions with Emergency Operations Centers in their counties. They also make requests from state officials for protective equipment from the state for these congregate settings. 

By letting the Emergency Operations Centers know where these units are located, first responders will know where vulnerable populations are in order to keep them safe. 

“Personal protection equipment is hard to come by,” says Caraway. “We’ll ask for 300 of something and get 50. We’re working with our providers. We’re also working with homeless shelters to reduce occupancy to ensure safe distancing.”

Piccirilli says the Mahoning County Commissioners have provided funding for the board to rent hotel rooms for first responders and as emergency shelter. 

The other issue is many of these housing units and homeless shelters do not have the space to ensure social distancing. 

“When we started this out, the [virus’s reproductive number] as scientifically known, the spread of disease is that one person quickly, in the span of three to six days, can infect two to three more people,” Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton says.

Staying at home or practicing social distancing by staying six feet apart from another person are two of the best ways to slow the spread of the disease. 

“You have six, eight, 10 people who, because of their mental illness, perhaps don’t comprehend the nature of this and don’t understand the need to social distance,” Haney says 

Haney adds that though residents in group homes receive government benefits – $752 a month – they don’t have much spending money. NAMI distribute hygiene items during the holidays. The organization has some items left over that are being distributed, to help people comply with the state’s stay-at-home order.

Patton says her staff worked with members of the Emergency Operation Centers to help with being able to purchase more groceries than were permitted by one person because it is for a house with 10 or more people.

“One loaf of bread just wasn’t going to do it.” Patton says. “I’m so pleased how everyone has to come together to help this vulnerable population.”

Haney says widespread testing is desperately needed. Acton has long said that numbers of cases and deaths could be grossly underestimated due to the lack of testing in state. 

“My biggest concern is people being afraid to share information because of stigma. It seems back when AIDS first happened people were so afraid to identify as sick and didn’t get tested or share their status if they did.,” Caraway says. “Not sharing the information that you’re sick or may be sick and not doing what you need to do to self-quarantine will only continue community spread.” 

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.