During the COVID-19 pandemic, Disability Rights Nebraska found different ways to conduct some of its most important work.
For years, monitoring places where people with disabilities live or work has been one of our highest priorities. As the Protection & Advocacy system in Nebraska, we have reasonable unaccompanied access to facilities or programs providing services to people with disabilities. No other organization has such sweeping federal access authority. Our advocates and attorneys can go where the people we serve are, from large public facilities such as the Beatrice State Developmental Center or the Lincoln Regional Center to small private group homes and assisted living facilities. We talk with individuals to discuss their allegations of abuse, neglect, or rights violations, and ultimately to make sure they are treated with dignity and respect. We also take phone calls daily from people with disabilities and allies who have concerns about places where people with disabilities live and work.
During the pandemic, we shifted our monitoring visits to telephone and Skype interviews of individuals with disabilities. We also surveyed facilities across the state to identify needs of Nebraskans with disabilities during the pandemic.
In late 2020, we released a report, “A Widening Divide: How Nebraska’s Pandemic Response Has Left Behind Many People with Disabilities.” Our report outlined significant failures.
The report focused primarily on conditions in Nebraska’s congregate living facilities. It examined how people living in group homes, assisted living facilities and nursing homes were affected by the pandemic, and concluded that our state government left behind people with disabilities.
Among other problems, Disability Rights Nebraska’s report uncovered the following gaps in care for people living in congregate facilities:
- Basic food insecurity
- Inability to obtain PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)
- Critical staffing shortages
- No information or guidance from state officials, who particularly made no plan for communicating guidance to facilities serving adults with mental illness
- Ongoing inaccessibility of TestNebraska program for people with disabilities: the phone screening option has been suspended and there remains no option for people who can’t drive themselves to the test
As common themes began emerging from the surveys, Disability Rights Nebraska began talking with leadership at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services about our concerns.
As a result of these discussions, the state made several laudable reforms including: creation of an online portal to request PPE, improved dissemination of information to congregate facilities to ensure accurate information was made available more quickly to all residential facilities particularly the assisted living and long term care facilities, ultimately expanding testing of residents in long term care facilities as well as the Beatrice State Development Center and the Regional Centers, and reinstating DHHS inspections of long term care facilities to ensure ongoing monitoring.
Despite ongoing negotiations with the state, TestNebraska remains a program accessible only to those who can drive themselves to a testing site. Because that violates the state’s obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal disability rights laws, Disability Rights Nebraska filed a formal complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in June 2020.
As of this writing, COVID-19 vaccinations are being rolled out around Nebraska. We remain concerned that the vaccination distribution plan must identify and arrange vaccinations for individuals living independently but without transportation to a vaccination site. We have provided guidance to every local health department to explain how to ensure their vaccination clinics are physically accessible and encourage anyone who observes a barrier to contact us about it.
Monitoring during the last year of the pandemic may have changed from the usual in-person visits to facilities, but the information we’ve gathered through alternate investigation methods has allowed us to continue with our mission to ensure that every Nebraskan’s health and wellbeing is protected. When we can resume visiting facilities in person without risking harm to the residents, we will, but in the meantime we will use innovative strategies and technology to maintain our watchdog role.