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Horizons adapts in age of COVID-19

Jeffrey Turner and his dad, Michael, give two thumbs up while visiting on the deck of the group home where Jeffrey lives. Michael said the deck is the only place he has met and visited in-person with his son since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Michael Turner misses the days when he was able to stop by his son’s group home and take him out for a cross-country ski adventure or to a local restaurant for a burger and beer.

“I’m hesitant, I’m optimistic, but I also am very cautious — you know, that’s just the way it is,” Michael said of not being able to hang out with his 36-year-old son Jeffrey the way he did before COVID-19.

Jeffrey has intellectual and developmental disabilities and lives in a group home in Steamboat Springs run by Horizons Specialized Services.



“Normally at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would pick him up, and we’d go to a movie in the afternoon, and then he would come over here for dinner,” Michael said. “Well, we can’t do that, because if I took him away, he would have to quarantine in his room for 14 days. I didn’t want to do that to him.”

For several months at the start of the pandemic, Michael would visit the home only to drop off prescription medications for Jeffrey. It was a procedure that involved Michael wearing a mask and gloves, disinfecting the container the prescription was packaged in and setting the bottle on a table outside the group home’s doors. He then knocked on the door and stepped back more than 6 feet before a direct services professional opened the door and collected the prescription.



The visits gave Michael a chance to talk to the Horizons employee about how Jeffrey was doing while his son stood in a nearby window and waved. Sometimes Jeffrey opened the window, and the two would have socially distanced father-and-son conversations. Over the summer and before the latest spike in cases, Michael sat with Jeffrey on the outside deck, at least 10 feet apart, and talked. It was one of the only interactions Jeffrey had with anyone outside the home.

Crystal Denton spent some of her time in the kitchen at the Horizons group home creating some tasty dishes. (Photo courtesy of Horizons Specialized Services)

“What they weren’t allowing was people, family members, to come into the house, and that is only appropriate,” Michael said. “I try to use extreme caution and to be cognizant of the fact that it’s not just Jeffrey, but it’s the other residents and staff of the home that I needed to try and protect.”

He said from the start of the pandemic, the Horizons leadership team has implemented a mitigation plan to protect residents and their families.

This year, Rhianna Gifford spent Valentine's Day inside, but luckily, she was greeted by flowers and chocolates on the special day.(Photo courtesy of Horizons Specialized Services)

People living in the group homes could no longer take part in outside activities, like the Special Olympic skiing programs, and family members had to find new ways to communicate. The day programs, which provide skill acquisition, independence, reading, writing and socialization, had to be cut and then shifted as the pandemic unfolded.

“That has been an example of something that has been greatly reduced because of COVID, because of our inability to congregate in groups,” Horizons Executive Director Tatum Heath said.

He said this change forced Horizons to get creative in an effort to curb the isolation many residents were feeling.

Misty Garcia plays a little basketball in front of one of the group homes run by Horizons Specialized Services The residents’ social activities have been limited since the start of COVID-19, and masks and social distancing are required when residents venture outside. (Photo courtesy of Horizons Specialized Services)

“We have Zoom exercise classes, we do skills lessons using Zoom, and we do all of our parties via Zoom,” Heath said. “With all the homes, we’ve just kind of moved that platform to a virtual one, and we try to engage them as much as possible.”

“Life has definitely changed for the people in our programs,” Heath added, “That being said, we have been given the opportunity to receive weekly testing, almost from the beginning, and that’s been huge for us.”

Some of the normal activities that participants in Horizons Specialized Services programs normally take part in have been limited. However, Scott Bjorgum was able to get out to the ranch this summer wearing a mask and following COVID-19 safety protocols. (Photo courtesy of Horizons Specialized Services)

Because of that level of testing, Deirdre Pepin, who handles resource development and public relations for Horizons, said the organization has been able to escape the impacts that many other programs and group homes have experienced because of COVID-19.

“In Routt County, from day one and from the minute groups were assembled and committees were formed, we were included,” Pepin said. “We were invited as an entity that provides care for a vulnerable population to have a voice at the table.”

Heath said Horizons has always followed the public health orders established by the local board of health and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. And despite the fact that all of the participants in the programs, residents and staff have been vaccinated, she said Horizons continues to be vigilant.

“They haven’t been able to socialize in the community for a year. They have stopped going to work because they can potentially bring the virus back to the licensed group home and impact the health of that facility,” Health said. “So it’s been really hard for them, and that’s why we’ve provided a lot of additional training and support for our staff in applied behavior analysis, which is kind of behavioral support, just to help the people who live there.”

Michael said the impacts have been different for every resident and every family. He feels lucky that Jeffrey has a grasp of what the pandemic is about and a good understanding of what it means.

Just last week Michael received a letter from Horizons stating the organization will start allowing family members to come inside, with restrictions, for 45-minute visits.

But he doesn’t plan to go inside just yet, just to be safe.

“I actually got my second vaccine a week ago yesterday at Lyon’s,” said Michael, who is 71. “But all the data shows that I can still be a transmitter, so I think it’s only fair and ethical for me not to take that chance.”


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