An Important Message Regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19)

From Steve Howard, Executive Director, WACOSA

May 20, 2020

To:  All WACOSA staff and stakeholders

From:  Steve H., Executive Director

Re:  COVID-19 Update

In keeping with our promise, we are writing to inform you of a recent development regarding our ability to reopen in the near future.  Regrettably, we received word from the Minnesota Department of Human Services today that programs that provide services like WACOSA will not be permitted to reopen at this time. Concern around individuals in congregate living situations and the recent spike in COVID-19 cases is one reason behind this decision, in addition to time spent in close proximity with one another. (Please see the notification from DHS below)

While we are disappointed with this news, we will continue to do our best to keep you posted regarding important  new updates or changes.  Please stay connected with WACOSA’s various sources of information as we move into the summer months in order to get as up-to-the-minute information regarding the re-establishment of our services.

Thanks for your continued patience with this difficult situation.  Please stay healthy and safe.

BELOW IS THE LETTER RECEIVED FROM THE MINNESOTA DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, DATED 05/20/2020.

Dear Partner:

As I wrote last week, when Governor Walz announced the shift from Stay at Home MN to Stay Safe MN we began to explore the steps necessary to re-open day center services for people with disabilities.

We have been working with the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR) to develop the strongest guidelines possible to protect the health of employees and people we support. This included hygiene, distancing, masking, screening, operating at 50% capacity, allowing twice the space per person, and creating cohorts of less than 10 people that don’t intermix with other cohorts.

We have also worked with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to develop appropriate masking strategies for people with disabilities, consider guidance for what to do if someone tests positive for COVID-19, and look at the possibilities of allowing center-based and remote services.

In consultation with MDH, we have identified two important health and safety considerations we have not been able to mitigate in order to open day services for people with disabilities at this time.

The first issue – and the greatest at this time – is the recent number of positive COVID-19 cases in group homes for people with disabilities. After COVID-19 first appeared in nursing and assisted living facilities, some 5% of small congregate care sites like group homes have now also experienced positive COVID-19 cases.

Many of the individuals who use day services live in group homes. While we are trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 in group homes, it would be a mistake to bring people together into day centers every day and send them back to their homes potentially exposed to the virus. This could undermine our mitigation strategies in those residential settings.

Our second issue is the increased risk of COVID-19 when we have more, closer and longer exposures to people who are COVID-19 positive. We are just beginning to understand that another risk factor in contracting COVID-19 is the length of time we are exposed to people who are positive. There is a difference between moving around a grocery store for 20 minutes and sitting in a restaurant for 2 hours.  Day services facilities have people interacting with each other for 6 hours a day. If anyone shares a cohort with a COVID-19 positive colleague, their risk of contracting the virus is greater.

So, while I apologize for raising the hopes of our day services providers and staff that we might be able to support their reopening, it is our best judgement, based on the best health advice we have, that it would be too risky to re-open day centers at this time. While we understand the many challenges this creates for you and the people you serve, protecting the health and safety of vulnerable Minnesotans is our first priority.

At the request of the MOHR association, we are looking at allowing day services providers to provide more remote services to residents of group homes. We will communicate more as soon as we can, and we will continue to work with MOHR to explore other solutions to support these important community-based services.

We will continue to assess the situation regularly throughout the pandemic and we’ve agreed to discuss the current situation with MOHR every other week to see what new guidance we can develop to allow you to support Minnesotans with disabilities.

Thank you for who you are for your neighbors in Minnesota.

Sincerely,

Jodi Harpstead, Commissioner
Minnesota Department Human Services 

May 15, 2020

To: All WACOSA stakeholders
From: Steve H., Executive Director
Re: COVID-19 Update

We wanted to check in with all of our WACOSA stakeholders on the current COVID-19 situation, as we know it. While we don’t have any specific news to share, it would be fair to say we are heartened with the Governor’s recent comments about the potential for reopening many segments of society in the coming weeks. We are checking with our contacts through MOHR, our state association, to learn what we can about the intent of Governor Walz’s comments and to determine how these comments pertain to our services, in particular. Right now, we understand the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) will be reviewing Preparedness Plans created by organizations to determine what, if anything, must be changed to ensure the health and well-being of organizations who eventually reopen their doors for service. Our plan has been prepared and is ready for review.

While we cannot yet share an exact timeframe, we hope you also feel a sense of confidence in the tone of the governor’s recent comments. Presently, we are in the process of developing plans to once again begin serving our clients using a phased in approach. Phases will be constructed considering such factors as determining those clients who wish to return to work and where individuals are located geographically. We are working cooperatively with a number of our key residential providers to ensure the plans we are drafting do our best to balance out the choices of our various stakeholders, while keeping in mind our responsibilities for operating a program that places safety and health as a top priority. As you can imagine, this takes time and is challenging, given the many individuals involved and consulting relating to this process.

In the coming days and weeks, we will be constructing a list of items that will need to be completed to enable us to, once again, provide WACOSA’s trademark services. We fully anticipate the need to adjust many of the ways WACOSA has historically provided services (i.e. using PPE, developing social distancing of work stations, sanitizing schedules etc.) to ensure that everyone, to the best of our abilities, remains healthy and safe. We ask that you remain patient and somewhat flexible once services do commence. Please remember WACOSA served just shy of 700 clients in 2019. This represents a wide range of needs all based upon the unique aspects each individual, as well as their respective circles of support. While we will do our best to meet the needs of all of those we serve, reintegration plans will take time to unfold entirely. For example, we anticipate many clients will not wish to return to services until the COVID-19 pandemic has more fully run its course. Others may wish to attend immediately. Challenges to arrange efficient transportation routes must be addressed resulting in the timing and make-up of routes being adjusted. These are but a few of the issues we will be tackling as the time for re-opening approaches. Your patience will be appreciated.

Please stay connected with WACOSA’s various sources of information as we move into the summer months in order to get as up-to-the-minute information regarding the re-establishment of our services. Keep in mind the impact on COVID-19 is very different across the state of Minnesota. As a result, you may hear programs who provide services similar to those WACOSA provides beginning to reopen. You may ask why WACOSA has not yet reopened. Please remember that the Governor’s executive orders must be considered within the context of the unique health concerns of those we serve and the general environment of COVID-19 infections currently popping up in and around the central Minnesota area. While we are excited and anxious to re-open, we cannot do so in a way that endangers the health and well-being of our clients, staff and community. Feel free to contact any of WACOSA’s leadership team for additional information or to get answers to your questions. We hope to commence services once again in the very near future.

 

April 28, 2020

 

To:  All WACOSA stakeholders

From:  Steve Howard, Executive Director

Re:  Check-in during the COVID-19 crisis

 

As promised, we will continue to check in with our stakeholders during the current COVID-19 crisis.  First, all of us here at WACOSA hope you continue to remain healthy and are exercising proper practices to protect yourself, clients and family members, during the current pandemic. As the Governor’s deadline of May 4, 2020 approaches, we have no news or information that would lead us to believe we will be reopening at that time.  We continue to anticipate Governor Walz will extend the current stay-at-home order for an additional period, though we still do not know how long that will be.  As with many of you, we were heartened to hear the Governor speak recently of possibly reopening some businesses, provided necessary COVID-19 Preparedness Plans were in place.  To the extent possible, WACOSA is already working to construct such a plan so we can be ready to begin providing at least some services as soon as our segment of community/business operations is authorized to do so.  As promised, we will continue to keep everyone posted regarding WACOSA’s re-opening plans and ask that you monitor our various social media outlets for the timeliest updates related to this process.

Thanks so much for the continued phone calls, Facebook posts and emails reaching out to wish all of us here at WACOSA the best. We miss all of you, as well. To the extent possible, we continue to stay in contact with our various stakeholder groups, as much as possible. For those of you who are interested and able, WACOSA staff will be lining Sundial Drive to wave and say hello to everyone passing by Friday, May 1, 2020 from 1:30pm – 2:00pm.  We would love to give all of our clients, families and friends an “air high-five” or a “wave” from a safe distance.  If you can find time to drive by during this 30-minute period, we would love to see you and say hello.

Finally, If you have not heard, WACOSA is asking that facemasks be donated in anticipation of what we believe will be stricter guidelines for operating once we resume operations.  It is likely many of the procedures currently in place by order of Governor Walz (i.e. PPE, social distancing etc.) will remain in effect well into the future. Given this likelihood, WACOSA is stockpiling as many masks as we can right now in order to make efficient use of this downtime.  Anyone with the ability and equipment to sew, along with the time to devote to the effort is invited to help by sewing masks for WACOSA’s future service needs.  Thanks to all of our supporters who have made masks for us thus far. To date, we have received in excess of 150 masks dropped in our donation basket outside our 310 building (next to our ThriftWorks! store entrance) in Waite Park.  As a reminder, masks can be dropped off Monday – Thursday, 9:00am – 1:00pm.

For now, please continue to stay healthy and safe.  As requested by our health experts, stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of the COVID-19.  All of us here at WACOSA continue to wish you the best and hope for a speedy end to the current pandemic.

April 3rd, 2020

To:  All WACOSA stakeholders

From:  Steve Howard, Executive Director

Re:  Update on WACOSA’s services

We hope everyone is well and continuing to follow the Governor’s order to remain home and “shelter in place” as much as possible to protect our community from the spread of the current pandemic.  As we shared in our March 27 memo, we feel it is important to provide occasional updates regarding WACOSA’s plans to manage the current COVID-19 crisis.  Unfortunately, our earlier hoped-for deadline of April 6, 2020 to continue our services will not be possible.  In keeping with the advice of our state and federal authorities, WACOSA will remain closed until further notice. We will resume services again as we receive guidance that doing so will not jeopardize the health and well-being of our clients, staff, stakeholders and/or community.

Please continue to monitor WACOSA’s various points of social media including our website (www.wacosa.org), our Facebook page and our recorded phone line for the most up-to-date information we can share regarding our services at this time.   If you prefer, our informational email is also available at info@wacosa.org.

Thank you.

March 27th, 2020

To:  All WACOSA stakeholders

From:  Steve Howard, Executive Director

Re:  Update on current response to COVID-19

WACOSA appreciates the effort all of the individuals we serve, our staff and our stakeholders are expending to deal with the many complex issues presented by the current COVID-19 crisis. We feel it important to provide occasional updates regarding WACOSA’s plans to manage this issue as concerns deepen and persist.  Beginning Friday, March 27, 2020, we will be honoring Governor Walz’s most recent directive to stay at home or “shelter in place”, to do our part to protect our community and stop the spread of this pandemic.  This means that all WACOSA offices will be closed entirely to both staff and the public.  Aside from our need to sustain a few administrative functions, staff will be unavailable to take calls or receive visitors during normal office hours.  Those staff whose duties allow may work remotely for a period.  Additionally, until further notice, both our ThriftWorks! and DocuShed businesses will be closed with tentative reopening dates of April 13, 2020.  This includes both our DocuShred storefront, as well as our shred pick-up services.

In spite of the immediate challenges, WACOSA continues to do its best to respond to the needs of our community.  Many of our direct support professionals are continuing to work in group homes during this time.  This allows the people we serve to continue receiving supports from the safety of their own homes, while also allowing many of our staff to earn their same wages and benefits, and granting residential providers much-needed help.  We continue to hold a weekly conference call with many of our key residential providers to collaborate whenever possible.  Our sincerest respect goes out to all of our residential providers right now who are doing their best under very difficult circumstances.

WACOSA staff who have questions related to their individual employment situation should contact HR Director, Sandie Westergren at swestergren@wacosa.org or 320-257-5181.  If you are unable to reach her, please leave a message and she will return your call as soon as possible.

We understand how difficult our being closed continues to be for persons served, families and residential providers.   We thank you for your hard work and partnering with us during this unprecedented time in our history.  Please continue to follow the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH – http://www.health.state.mn.us/),  the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO – WHO).  Since this remains a rapidly evolving situation, please continue to monitor WACOSA’s various points of social media including our website (www.wacosa.org), our Facebook page and our recorded phone line for the most up-to-date information we can share regarding the current state of WACOSA’s services.  You may also contact our informational email at info@wacosa.org.

We appreciate this time continues to be filled with uncertainty and concern. The many kind emails, calls and positive messages we have received from so many of you have been much appreciated.  Rest assured we would resume services once we receive guidance by our state and federal authorities that doing so will not jeopardize the health and well-being of our clients, staff, stakeholders and/or community. Thank you for your support and patience during this time.  I am confident we will get through this COVID-19 crisis soon and will be stronger for our efforts and for the great partnerships we have forged during this time.

March 18th, 2020

Hello WACOSA Stakeholder:

The link below is a reference on Plain Language Information on Coronavirus.  Please feel free to use this document to share information related to preventing the spread of COVID-19 with those you support.  This document was created by Green Mountain Self-Advocates in  Montpelier, Vermont (http://www.gmsavt.org/) At this time we hope everyone remains safe and is engaged as possible in stopping the spread of this disease.

Plain-Language-Information-on-Coronavirus

MARCH 17th, 1:30 PM.

To:  All WACOSA stakeholders

From:  Steve Howard, Executive Director

Re:  Temporarily closing our services

In light of the recent Coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, WACOSA will be closing all Center-Based Day Services at all locations as of Thursday, March 19, 2020, with a tentative reopening date of April 6, 2020.  However, we wish to emphasize this date is tentative.  With the constantly evolving COVID-19 health care crisis, we ask that you monitor WACOSA’s website (www.wacosa.org) or phone line (320-251-0087) for the most up-to-date information on current and future WACOSA services.  We will work individually with persons served, families, case managers, group homes, and guardians to determine a plan for people that cannot be safe at home during the day. WACOSA is dedicated to continuing to provide services so that people are safe. If this is the case for you or your family member, please contact your WACOSA supervisor or case manager as soon as possible.

At this time, we have not been notified of any confirmed cases of exposure to COVID-19 here at WACOSA. However, anyone who is at higher risk based on guidance from the CDC (guidance from the CDC) should immediately stay home and contact their medical professional should they be experiencing flu-like symptoms. WACOSA’s offices in Waite Park, St. Cloud and Sauk Center that support our services will be closed to the public.

Closure will mean that clients will not be working at their respective community work sites.  WACOSA leadership is currently engaged in determining how best to meet the needs of employers during the current health care crisis.

We understand that closure may be a hardship for families and residential providers, but think this step is best in order to support the health and safety of persons served, as well as our many staff, stakeholders and the community, in general. We are following the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and our disability trade association. Please keep in mind this is a rapidly evolving situation and the information contained in this letter may change in the future. We appreciate this is a time filled with uncertainty and concern.  Rest assured WACOSA remains dedicated to protecting and balancing the mental, physical and safety needs of everyone we support.

You will be able to find the most current WACOSA status on our website and Facebook pages, along with our recorded phone line. Any significant changes to the information in this notice will be posted in those places and/or emailed via our email list. If you have additional questions, please contact info@wacosa.org.  I am also available to answer questions during this time on my cell phone at (320) 292-9319.

Thank you for your support and patience during this time.  I am confident we will get through this difficult time and emerge strong after.

MARCH 15th, 2020 – 2:40 PM.

WACOSA remains open at all program sites. Please note that our situation may change rapidly and we ask that you check back regularly to our webpage, www.wacosa.org and click on the yellow bar on the top titled, “WACOSA & Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update,” the News Section of our webpage, or at WACOSA’s Facebook page for updates.   We are in close communication with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, our trade associations, and our peer providers regarding service delivery, and we will continue to follow guidelines and/or mandates established by the Minnesota Department of Health and other health agencies. For WACOSA staff, clients, guardians and group homes, we respectfully ask that if you are ill you refrain from coming to WACOSA. 

March 13, 2020 — As we continue to monitor the challenges presented by Coronavirus, we wish to keep you posted on what we are doing at WACOSA to remain as proactive as possible and to adjust to this continually changing situation.  Please keep in mind our effort to keep you posted is designed to educate you, which will hopefully help you remain informed, while at the same time preventing you from feeling anxious or fearful of the current situation:

  • We are making available all Memo’s related to Coronavirus on our website (www.wacosa.org), with a link to our Facebook page directing folks to these memos, as well.
  • We are meeting with our key residential facilities next week (week of the 16th) to discuss protocols we can implement to promote a consistent response between work and home to be as proactive as possible in our coordinated response to the current situation.
  • We are stepping up our maintenance effort by changing out the air filters more frequently in our HVAC systems at all of our service locations in an effort to promote cleaner air throughout WACOSA, to address Coronavirus concerns, in addition to suppressing various allergens that might be present. 
  • We are continuing our deep cleaning efforts, most specifically areas of WACOSA that experience frequent hand contact (i.e. key boards, doorknobs, computers etc.)
  • We have instituted ultraviolet light disinfecting processes to clean IT equipment (i.e. IPads) that our clients use regularly.
  • We have instituted additional training for staff and clients to promote social distancing, health and wellness, in addition to increasing/respecting personal space. 
  • Our maintenance team has instituted disinfecting procedures of the interior of all WACOSA vehicles multiple times a week.
  • Timers have been installed in bathrooms to improve handwashing procedures for clients and staff.
  • We continue to assess appropriate environments for community outings to take place.
  • WACOSA has designated additional places away from program areas that are designated as sick rooms where individuals can be removed from their colleagues, should signs or symptoms of illness develop.  In like manner, staff will be asked to remain home if they are feeling ill, with corresponding testing/quarantine imposed prior to returning to work, as a particular situation may require.
  • We have begun dialogue with area employers, with whom WACOSA provides services or does business to keep them mindful of the plans and potential restrictions that could be imposed upon WACOSA workers or work crews, as any specific situation may require. 

In addition to these, in addition to earlier mentioned steps, we will continue to monitor the situation and implement our Emergency Response Plan as needed to address this developing concern.  We continue to ask that you locate travel notices and guidance on precautionary measures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Minnesota Department of Health ( http://www.health.state.mn.us/) and the World Health Organization (WHO).  Also, feel free to call me at (320)257-5180 or email at showard@wacosa.org if I can answer additional questions. We will continue to keep you updated with any significant changes to this situation via memos and on our website.

–  Steve H., Executive Director, WACOSA