Amy Davis, Independence Association director of residential services, shows the first face mask handmade by Spindleworks staff. Contributed photo

BRUNSWICK — Of the roughly 45 people living in Independence Association’s nine group homes, about half of them would be at “high risk” if they contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Executive Director Ray Nagel. 

The organization assists adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Midcoast. Some are over 65 years old, some have diabetes, a few have had organ transplants and others have compromised immune systems, Nagel said. Each of these factors increases the chance of serious complications from the respiratory disease.

Working with such a vulnerable population, there are risks for both residents and employees. 

“I wanted to give our people some relative confidence in the safety of their workplace,” should an infection be diagnosed, Nagel said. 

But personal protective equipment is in short supply. 

After little luck with the organization’s regular supplier, Independence Association was put on the Maine Center for Disease Control’s waiting list, but they are a lower priority hospitals and emergency medical services, so Nagel is not anticipating a shipment anytime soon. 

Instead, they are making what they can and asking community members to do the same.

Independence Association is seeking contributions such as flat bedsheets to make more hospital gowns, protective masks and safety goggles so staff can have clean personal protective equipment each time they have to go in to feed, check on or deliver medication to a resident. Gear will be washed regularly. 

Chicago’s Deaconess hospital system recommends masks be made of tightly woven, non-stretch cotton or other fabric, such as denim, canvas or twill. More information, including how to make masks, is available online. 

Other donations, such as disposable masks and gowns are also welcome. Nagel estimates they will need at least 300 of each. 

Independence Association staff have been working to keep residents safe in other ways — barring visitors, having someone shop for groceries and leaving them outside rooms to be picked up, taking the vitals of all employees before allowing them into the homes and sanitizing each home twice during each of the three shifts. 

Some elements, like how to handle an outbreak if one does occur, are still being worked out with the help of Mid Coast Hospital. 

The cost of a pandemic

Nagel also has concerns about the overall health of the organization. 

Four of the most popular adult day programs (Spindleworks, EnVision ME, Chatty Goose and Spinoff Studios), supporting 145 adults, are closed under restrictions against gatherings of 10 or more people. Without those programs, Independence Association is losing up to $200,000 of funding per month, he said.

When all programs are running, the Independence Association typically serves about 450 people and employs another 220. Money was a concern even before the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Earlier this month, The Times Record reported that officials at the nonprofit closed three group homes last year and expect to close another three this year as they struggle to retain and recruit staff. 

Through MaineCare, the Independence Association is reimbursed for $11.22 an hour for a direct support professional. In Maine, the minimum wage is $12 per hour, and Independence Association pays a $13 starting wage for direct support professionals, covering the additional $1.78 out of pocket.

“Essentially, we’re losing lots and lots of money,” Nagel said at the time. “Ironically,” he added, “we didn’t fire or lay off anyone because we’re so short-staffed.” 

At that point, he was looking to a new bill that would increase pay at organizations like Independence Association and require minimum wage adjustments and costs of state and federal mandates be taken into account when setting MaineCare reimbursement rates. 

But now, Nagel is resigned to waiting longer for the funding as the state and the nation focus on the coronavirus and COVID-19.

Despite the continued financial losses, nobody has been laid off, and Nagel thinks they can continue that way. He hopes to take advantage of the small business administration loan to meet payroll needs. 

Staff from three of the shuttered programs are assisting in the group homes, where they are usually short-staffed and Spindleworks staff is making masks and gowns in the art studio. 

“Our people are maintaining an extremely good attitude,” Nagel said. “I’m very proud of our staff and how they’ve pulled together.” 

Anyone donating items may leave them under the portico at Independence Association, 3 Industrial Parkway, Brunswick. Call 504-0386 to let officials know to expect the drop-off. Staff will distribute items to our residences and apartments in Freeport, Durham, Brunswick and Bath. Donations of cash, including monthly pledges, may be made at or sent by mail to Independence Association, 3 Industrial Parkway, Brunswick, ME 04011.


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