Theresa Kuca, who resides at United Helpers Rehabilitation and Senior Care in Ogdensburg enjoys a window visit with her son, Keith
OGDENSBURG - In mid-March, as the threat of COVID-19 moved slowly north, area schools closed, many businesses were shuttered and hundreds of St. Lawrence County residents relocated their offices to their homes. At the same time, United Helpers issued a no visitation policy that would affect their Rehabilitation and Senior Care facilities in Canton and Ogdensburg and the Behavioral Health and Life Skills Individualized Residential Alternatives (IRAs) that are located throughout the county. Visitation was also restricted at the 20 senior/disabled housing complexes United Helpers manages to further discourage the spread of the virus.
While families were separated from their loved ones, nothing could stop the flow of support that immediately arose from all over the North Country. Local quilting groups and sewing enthusiasts began sewing and donating hundreds of masks to be used by UH staff members and those residing in senior housing complexes managed by United Helpers. Area hospitals, US Customs and Border Patrol donated hard to find hospital-grade masks and gowns. Local distillers and shops donated cases of hand sanitizer. Dinners, snacks, and sweets arrive on a daily basis, donated by caregivers, family members, friends, and staff members.
“The outpouring of support over the past two months from our community, resident family members and staff has been overwhelming,” said Stephen E. Knight, United Helpers CEO. “The encouraging videos, the cards, and letters supporting both our staff and residents, the donations of masks, food for the staff, it’s really incredible to see the support.”
After weeks of planning and preparation, the team at United Helpers would face their worst fear. On April 13th United Helpers issued a press release citing the agency’s first COVID positive staff member, less than a week later, United Helpers would see positive cases at their Behavioral Health and Life Skills IRA in Lisbon, and another at its Rehabilitation and Senior Care facility in Canton.
Today, all of the staff and residents that had tested positive have recovered and many of the staff have returned to work. “We have been very fortunate and I cannot say enough about how proud I am of the United Helpers team,” Knight said. “Through diligence and a very quick, all hand’s on deck response, we were able to avoid a catastrophic outcome. But let’s be clear, we’ve dodged what could have been a very devastating bullet, and, if we are not prudent, we could find ourselves in that position once again.”
As New York State and the north country prepares for reopening, Knight cautions us to remember our most vulnerable populations, including our seniors. “It is imperative that we keep the safety of our seniors and those who cannot care for themselves at the forefront,” Knight said.
According to Knight, the organization must have an ample supply of personal protective equipment, including masks, face shields and gowns, and have access to rapid testing and resulting for both residents and staff. Wait times for hard to procure items like gowns, face shields and testing supplies are unpredictable and the costs to purchase these items are staggering, putting significant strain on an already stressed financial situation. He urges the Governor and the NYS Senate and Assembly to address the significant gap in priority and funding disparities laid bare by the pandemic.
Knight says United Helpers will continue to diligently follow the governor’s mandates and there is no clear timeline for when visitation restrictions will be lifted. “We are not out of the woods yet,” he said.