COLUMBUS, Ohio — For a brief, happy moment, it appeared that a distributor of masks would come through with a shipment to a northeastern Ohio agency whose workers care for people with disabilities.

“And then it was diverted to a hospital,” said Pete Moore, president and CEO of the Ohio Provider Resource Association.

“We are essential, and we are part of the health-care community, too,” he said. “But we are kind of low on the PPE totem pole.”

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With supplies being gobbled up by medical professionals, safety workers and now the general public, disability services agencies and their thousands of employees are desperate for the masks and other personal protective equipment that they need to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections in group homes and other settings.

“It’s just overwhelming, the need out there,” said Bethany Toledo, executive director of the Ohio Alliance of Direct Support Professionals.

Many workers have no choice but to try to make their own masks. Agencies and county boards of developmental disabilities throughout the state also are accepting donations of purchased or handmade masks from the public and will get them to the workers, Toledo said.

“We would welcome that and would help to distribute them as well,” said Jed Morison, superintendent of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

Franklin County Emergency Management and Homeland Security is doing a good job obtaining supplies, Morison said, “but there’s still a shortage of masks, in particular.”

Cassandra Benning-Lewis, a direct support worker in the Dayton area for more than 20 years, is among those sewing as fast as she can. The skill is brand new.

“I didn’t know anything about sewing,” she said. “But I had a machine that had been sitting in the corner collecting dust. And I figured I’d go on YouTube and watch how-to videos until something resonated.”

Benning-Lewis is protective of both her clients and colleagues, and frustrated that many don’t have what they need to stay safe.

“I have a co-worker who has COPD,” she said. “She told me, ‘I just got off the phone with my sister and I made plans for her to take care of my dogs should something happen to me.'”

Benning-Lewis cried that day, as she had when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine praised direct support workers for standing by their clients with disabilities. “When he mentioned us, tears rolled down my face,” she said. “We don’t make a lot of money, but we’re buying fabric, sewing, we’re doing all we can.”

Moore, of the provider association, said he knows some workers are using rain ponchos instead of medical gowns. He and others say it shouldn’t be that way in the United States.

“I certainly hope we can walk away from this crisis with a better understanding of what it takes.”

© 2020 The Columbus Dispatch
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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