Agencies serving people with disabilities in Kansas are facing challenges trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep their residents and staff safe. People who work at these agencies provide vital services largely without recognition. They are among the unsung heroes who are helping us get through this pandemic.
Casey Hinkle never imagined she would make a career of caring for people with disabilities.
As someone whose breathing can be limited by asthma, working on the front lines with people who had tested positive for COVID-19 was probably the last place she should be. Yet, that is where she chooses to be.
Casey works at Starkey, a Wichita nonprofit organization that supports nearly 500 people with intellectual disabilities. In the world of pandemic language, people at Starkey are considered "high risk" and "vulnerable," with underlying health conditions that often accompany their intellectual disabilities.
She provides personal care, changing disposable briefs and assisting in the bathroom, giving showers and feeding them at meals if they require help.
Personal care doesn’t allow for physical distancing. "When you do things like that, you’re going to be in their bubble," she says.
So she faithfully wears face masks with insertable filters at work. She wears gloves, and when she takes them off, she washes her hands constantly. Like most health care workers, her hands are dry and sore. But she knows small actions are the difference between keeping the people she cares for healthy, or very sick.
Earlier this month, she took a man who lives in that home to the hospital for a suspected infection. He often gets bouts of pneumonia that result in hospitalization, so she expected to hear the usual report. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she could only hand off his care in a parking lot transfer, then wait in the vehicle to hear back from the medical professionals.
They called to say they were admitting him. A day later, they called to tell her he was positive for COVID-19.
"It was very scary. My immediate thought was, ’I have asthma.’ I had just gone to my grandmother’s house the week before, and even though we kept our distance and she wore a mask, she has health issues. I take all the precautions at work, but those can’t keep everything out — I mean, it’s airborne," she said.
"Then, I thought to myself – I wear masks. I wear gloves. I wash my hands. I’ve done all that I can. If I get it, then I get it."
Casey, other staff and all the people with disabilities who live there were tested. One other person tested positive. Everyone else, including Casey and the rest of the staff, tested negative.
Casey, who has worked in that home every week since the initial stay-at-home orders were issued, limits her activities. She doesn’t put her family members at potential risk. She goes to work then home. At 26, she has the sensibility of someone who has worked in this field for years.
She says: "I know my people well. And they are at risk. This house has people, in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The longer we can keep them home, the safer they are going to be."
Casey, like so many others across the state, is letting her own health take a backseat to ensure Kansans with disabilities remain safe during the pandemic.
Meghan Shreve is the director of education and communications for InterHab.