New Tennessee COVID-19 testing focuses on intellectually, developmentally challenged residents

Staff file photo / The Orange Grove Center is shown in this 2015 staff file photo.

NASHVILLE - State officials on Friday will launch their latest venture into wide-scale COVID-19 testing of vulnerable Tennesseans with a focus on an estimated 12,500 people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities served through state programs.

All are people who live in state-run or supported intermediate care facilities or else enrolled in independent living and work programs under the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities' Employment and Community First CHOICES program.

"They often have underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the complications of COVID-19," Gov. Bill Lee told reporters earlier this week.

The Departments of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and Health are partnering on the new push, with the first testing event scheduled Friday in rural Scott County atop the Cumberland Plateau.

Officials plan to use the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities' mobile clinic and nursing staff who specialize in care of persons with disabilities.

Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities spokeswoman Cara Kumari said in response to questions posed by the Times Free Press that the state hopes to get testing done statewide by June 30. Kumari said in response to another question that the state knows of one COVID-19-related death in the target population. It was not in Chattanooga or East Tennessee.

The potential coronavirus risks for the disabled community hit home in Chattanooga in late April and early May when Orange Grove Center announced that five group home residents and two staff members had tested positive for the virus.

The local nonprofit institution has for decades provided residential services as well as adult and children services, clinical and employment services and other support for the disability community in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.

Kumari said the department back in March began requiring providers such as Orange Grove to notify the state within four hours when clients and staff test positive. Providers are also required, among other things, to provide the state information on the person's condition, housemates, testing and safety measures implemented, as well as quarantine protocols.

Kumari said results as of Thursday morning show a total of 39 positive test results statewide for people in Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities waiver programs, as well as intermediate care facilities for people with intellectual disabilities and those participating in CHOICES programs.

COVID-19 positives for staffers as of Thursday morning stood at 61. It should be noted, Kumari added, that the state requires reporting of all positive tests among staff and that "not all of those staff positives are related to the positives of the persons served."

Costs for the tests, Kumari said, will be covered by the state with federal reimbursement. She said that although the state doesn't currently intend to use the Tennessee National Guard, which has been involved in testing in prisons, nursing homes and other areas across the state, "they have offered to assist if needed."

Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said "people are grateful that the governor and his commissioners recognize the unique needs and risks faced by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Making this testing available is especially important for individuals who live in congregate settings like intermediate care facilities, group homes and the like."

Westlake said families and individuals receiving consent forms will be "making decisions about testing. Not all individuals will choose to be tested. We have heard from people who worry their family member will not tolerate the testing, which may seem invasive to those who do not understand what is happening. Having testing available and having choice is very good."

Back in March, people with disabilities and advocates in Tennessee and three other states filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights over the states' triage guidance to hospitals that critics feared could leave disabled people vulnerable in life-and-death decisions made by hospitals if they became overwhelmed by an influx of coronavirus patients.

The Tennessee guidance was issued prior to Lee taking office. The governor directed it be removed but the disability community still had concerns. No Tennessee hospital has been overwhelmed by cases so far.

Lee, a Republican, has made a series of major pushes to get Tennesseans tested in response to the coronavirus pandemic, not just among the general population but for specific vulnerable populations. The list has focused on facilities with large populations including prisons, nursing homes and now public housing where there can be widespread community spread.

But Lee's effort recently began generating controversy after it became public that the state was sharing identities of people identified as testing positive with law enforcement.

Contact Andy Sher at Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.