After outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring, changes at Ludeman Center in Park Forest kept resurgence numbers down, officials say (2024)

What began as a health emergency at a state-operated development center in Park Forest has become a managed situation, according to two state legislators.

Although still serious, cases of COVID-19 at the Ludeman Center are down significantly from their peak in April, said state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, a Democrat from Chicago Heights.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, 21% of staff and 77% of residents at the Ludeman Center had confirmed cases of the virus, according to state data.

In May, challenges at the Ludeman Center included too few employees to manage such a massive viral outbreak and a lack of personal protective equipment for staff members exposed to COVID-19.

Intervention and assistance from state health agencies helped get the situation under control, according to DeLuca, who said shortly before Christmas, 12 residents and 20 staff of the Ludeman Center had COVID-19.

“There’s one resident who’s in the hospital, but I’m told she has underlying health conditions,” DeLuca said. “As of now, there are no issues with staffing and no issues with PPE.”

Ludeman Center director Tameka Watson did not return phone calls for comment. After being appointed interim director in June in a personnel move unrelated to COVID-19, a state spokesman confirmed Watson is now the permanent director.

DeLuca said Park Forest officials contacted his office earlier this year about the growing crisis at the Ludeman Center, after they heard complaints and concerns from village residents. His staff members contacted legislative liaisons at the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Department of Human Services.

The COVID-19 crisis also triggered an outcry from Anders Lindall, spokesman from the local council of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that represents workers at the Ludeman Center. AFSCME wanted improved testing, adequate personal protective equipment and worker protections.

Illinois Department of Public Health spokesman Patrick Laughlin said the state agency introduced a round of measures March 12 at all its developmental centers in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. These include temperature checks for residents and staff at shift change times and limiting facility access to only essential personnel.

The Department of Human Services also created an infectious disease team to respond to COVID-19 issues at all of the department’s 24/7 facilities, according to an email from Laughlin.

State Sen. Patrick Joyce also stepped in to help the facility in his district. The Democrat from Essex said the situation at the Ludeman Center at the start of the pandemic unfortunately mirrored what health care staff were dealing with across the United States.

“In the spring, the whole country was caught unaware of how much PPE you burn through on a daily basis, especially if you do have people who are COVID positive that you’re caring for,” Joyce said. “Then you had states competing with the national government trying to get PPE, and that was a difficult situation.”

DeLuca said Ludeman staff needed masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer, items prevalent now but in short supply back in April and May. Employees also requested plastic clothing covers and even stethoscopes, he said.

Another major issue contributing factor was the rotation of staff among the center’s more than 40 homes and administration buildings on the Ludeman Center’s 60-acre campus.

In its normal scheduling procedures, many of the more than 900 staff members at the Ludeman Center could work at any of the homes or buildings during a given shift. As staff came into contact with so many patients and co-workers throughout the facility, COVID-19 spread rapidly.

“I think any enclosed type of long-term care facility, whether a nursing home or any place where there are multiple permanent residents in a single site, I think we learned across the country that those places are especially vulnerable,” DeLuca said.

“It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, but the reality is that at that time, we didn’t know how contagious it was,” he said.

Laughlin said over the past several months the Department of Human Services has continued to change procedures while ending activities at the Ludeman Center that could lead to the spread of COVID-19.

They restricted residents’ movements by eliminating group activities, canceling day outings and home visits. Many Ludeman Center residents normally attend day training classes, a type of work activity, both on and off campus. All these activities have been stopped, Laughlin said.

To help residents and families manage the dramatic shift in daily life, the state agency and Ludeman staff arrange for video and phone calls as frequently as possible, he said.

The health of residents at its 24/7 centers is of utmost importance to human services staff, Laughlin’s email said. The department developed policies and procedures to respond to the unique challenges posted by COVID-19 throughout its system.

“Caring for people with developmental disabilities requires hands-on care, which makes it impossible to implement complete social distancing,” Laughlin said. “It is also sometimes challenging for our residents to adhere to all of the protective measures we are taking.”

The department operates seven development centers in the state and Ludeman is one of the largest, second only to the Shapiro Center in Kankakee, which is also in Joyce’s district.

According to state data, 21% of Shapiro’s staff have tested positive for COVID-19, and 41% of Shapiro’s residents have had it, compared to Ludeman’s 77%, the highest rate among all state centers.

Developmental centers in Dixon and Choate, Illinois, had percentages of COVID-19 positive residents comparable to the Ludeman Center, though they are much smaller facilities.

In May, the Ludeman Center reached a staffing crisis with a chunk of its workers out with COVID-19, especially with so many sick residents on-site to care for. Since then, the center has hired more workers to cover the 24-hour needs of the huge facility, Joyce said.

“It’s a large employer, the biggest employer in Park Forest,” he said. “From maintenance workers to cooks, to doctors and nurses, administrators — the staffing at a place like that is one of the biggest challenges, especially during COVID. You don’t have a minute off.”

Residents who test positive or even exhibit possible symptoms of COVID-19 are isolated, something that’s happening much quicker now than in April, when the Illinois National Guard deployed 22 service members to the Ludeman Center to assist in testing and securing the facility.

While it took time to ramp up, regular testing is now performed on Ludeman staff and residents, Joyce said.

“The testing was the biggest challenge we had early on,” Joyce said. “We couldn’t get it done. We just didn’t have the supplies. At one point we had the machine, but didn’t have the testing supplies, so that was frustrating. But we got past all that.”

As health care workers around Illinois begin to receive the state’s first COVID-19 vaccines, Laughlin said the Ludeman Center’s staff should be among the group to be first inoculated. However, he could not offer a specific timeline of when the first shots could get administered.

Carole Sharwarko is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

After outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring, changes at Ludeman Center in Park Forest kept resurgence numbers down, officials say (2024)
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