WGBH News has learned that two intellectually disabled individuals living in the care of Massachusetts Department of Disability Services, or DDS, have died from causes apparently related to COVID-19 infections.
The agency told WGBH News that as of Friday, an additional 67 individuals receiving DDS services and 71 employees working for DDS providers had tested positive for COVID-19.
Officials had not acknowledged the second death of a DDS resident publicly until now.
In updates on the deaths of senior veterans in state-run nursing homes earlier Friday, neither Governor Charlie Baker nor Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders noted these two deaths of developmentally disabled individuals under state care.
State officials had confirmed the first death of a DDS resident Thursday by way of response included ina report by Boston’s WCVB.
DDS oversees care for approximately 30,000 intellectually disabled adults, about 10,000 living in group homes of about four residents each, located across Massachusetts and overseen by DDS. Residents, who generally lack the ability to care for themselves, are assisted by providers contracted by DDS.
A DDS Spokesperson did not identify the two who died, or say in which facilities they were living.
The news of a second death came as a surprise to members of the Massachusetts Coalition of Families and Advocates, or COFAR, a nonprofit group that advocates for people living in DDS care.
“This is the first I’m hearing of two deaths,” said COFAR board president Thomas Frain, after being informed of DDS’ response to WGBH News questions.
The group has been calling on DDS and state health officials for weeks to revise what they have called an irresponsible plan, or the lack of a plan, for protecting vulnerable DDS residents across the state.
COFAR released a statement earlier Friday referring to the single death reported by WCVB, calling on the agency to immediately act to protect DDS residents and prevent more infections and deaths from coronavirus in DDS facilities.
Frain said the group had not been informed of either death by DDS, and instead learned about each after inquiries by WCVB and WGBH News respectively.
Frain said the news was “horrible” and described the deaths and infections among DDS residents and staff confirmed in the agency’s response to WGBH News “a disaster” that could have been prevented.
“It seems like no one has planned for anything,” Frain said.
In a statement, a DDS spokesman wrote that DDS updated its guidance in late March and put in place various new measures to protect residents, including a prohibition on in-person visitation to group homes, not allowing provider employees showing symptoms of sickness to enter group homes, and has “urged” providers to “develop and implement cleaning, baseline and screening of staff and individuals, quarantine procedures and staff training” in accordance with state health guidance.
Frain said his group has been calling on DDS and state health officials for weeks to take immediate action to prevent infections and outbreaks within group homes. He called the guidance provided in DDS’ statement to WGBH News insufficient.
“You do the math: In a group home, you have four people, one or two bathrooms, staff people coming in and out – that’s a lot of bodies in there,” Frain said.
And DDS guidance “urging” providers to monitor for symptoms, Frain said, doesn’t protect DDS residents and staff from infection.
“People can spread the virus even if they’re asymptomatic,” Frain said. “It’s not hard to imagine, especially with the high employee turnover in the companies operating the homes, why this would turn into something extremely menacing very fast.”
“There was no plan, there continues to be no plan,” Frain said.
Frain said DDS should immediately close any group homes in which infections are detected and place individuals in safe alternative facilities – but that the agency has not identified any such facilities in conversations with his group.
In its statement to WGBH News, DDS said no group homes have been closed due to coronavirus infections and that testing “is being administered to those who meet the current CDC and DPH testing criteria,” – criteria which include symptoms of infection, “so those not meeting that criteria have not been tested.”
The statement continued: “As this situation rapidly evolves, DDS has worked to share the latest guidance from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and Department of Public Health with DDS providers, state operated group homes, and facilities.”