LITTLE VILLAGE — Rosemary Coleman has spent most of her 73 years helping others as a nurse’s assistant. Now, she’s trying to save herself.
Coleman, a resident of the Albany Terrace Apartments in Little Village, said she and her neighbors have struggled to get assistance from the Chicago Housing Authority to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Requests for protective equipment have been rebuffed, efforts to contain or track the illness within the building has been lax, communication from the agency has been spotty, she said.
“They’re telling us that when it comes down to masks and gloves that it’s not their responsibility, because we’re not in an assisted living building or a nursing home,” said Coleman, who serves as president of Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere’s (MOVE) senior caucus. “We have to figure out other ways to get them ourselves.”
The pandemic has killed more than 1,700 Chicagoans, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Older adults, especially those over 65, and people with serious underlying health conditions are at higher risk for complications from the disease. Albany Terrace is a 350-unit building for adults 55 and older.
Exacerbating the issue, the ZIP code where the apartment building is located has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus anywhere in the state. The 60623 ZIP code recorded 2,567 people who have tested positive for coronavirus.
Community advocates and local politicians also are urging more response from CHA. State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt, whose district encompasses the West Side, said she’s “shocked” by the agency’s inaction.
“This is a no-brainer. The health and well-being of the senior tenants should be CHA’s primary concern,” said Van Pelt.
According to a CHA spokesperson, the agency has been following the protocols set by the Chicago Department of Public Health, dispatching teams to clean and sanitize common areas of any building where a case has been reported and distributing masks to every resident in senior housing. Cloth masks purchased by CHA will be handed out to seniors in the near future.
And while it is not required to track or verify cases due to privacy issues, CHA staff place 3,000 wellness calls a day to residents and do their best to reinforce the stay at home order, providing tenants with information on how to reduce further spread of the virus per CDPH and Center for Disease Control guidelines, added the spokesperson.
But finding masks has proved difficult and confusing, Coleman said.
Coleman said she was told by residents from other CHA-managed buildings on the South and West sides that 4,000 masks had recently been distributed to residents agency-wide. None went to the 350 seniors at Albany Terrace, 3030 W. 21st St., she said. Last week, CHA organized a produce giveaway. Masks were included in some packages, but it still wasn’t enough, Coleman said.
Coleman also said she heard that Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis would coordinate to deliver masks to the buildings resident service coordinators. But Scott said no such plan is in the works.
“People from one CHA building in my ward called to get masks, and we gave them some, as we have with anyone who has asked for them, but I haven’t spoken with Rep. Davis about doing anything like that,” Scott said.
Coleman also said she has seen little intervention from the agency when residents have gotten sick.
She recently discovered through her building’s manager there were an undisclosed number of residents who tested positive for the virus and were sent back to their units to quarantine. But she’s unsure if staff are keeping tabs on them.
“I don’t understand it. If you’re under quarantine, why would you be back in this building? There’s nobody to make sure you’re staying in your apartment. They can be walking around and you’re don’t know who they are,” said Coleman, who is also president of CHA’s local advisory council.
On Monday, she said she was told by another building staffer that the assistant manager and a janitor were sent home last week to quarantine themselves after contracting the virus. The janitor had been in her unit to fix the heat a day before, she said.
“They sent us flyers Saturday to tell us they’d be doing a deep cleaning of the building, but never said anything about the staff being sent home,” Coleman said.
Rev. Robin Hood said he has spoken with a number of older CHA residents who find themselves in the same precarious situation.
Last week, the West Side minister — along with fellow MOVE members and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization — arranged a press conference in hopes of getting some answers. CHA told the Sun-Times that wellness checks had been made and cloth masks would soon be on the way.
Hood and others are calling for more safeguards, like installing thermal detectors at the entrances of senior buildings for visitors, and requiring doctor’s notes from those denied entry due to high temperature readouts.
There should be a steady supply of personal protective equipment for tenants and required daily temperature checks, with those exhibiting fevers being sent to that building’s medical staff, Hood added.
“But they would have to put the medical staff back in the buildings like they used to be,” he said. “Make it easy for these folks to get tested. What good is a drive-thru testing site when they don’t have cars?”
Advocates also proposed that day rooms should be on alternate floors, with no more than 10 residents in a room and a lottery determining which resident would be granted access for the day.
“We can’t sit idly by watching them suffer and die without using every available tool and resource at our disposal,” Hood said.
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