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Forgotten population of COVID-19: Developmentally disabled and group home workers

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New statistics have revealed that nursing homes have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming at least 7,000 lives across the United States. While the virus is shining a light on the unique challenges of nursing homes, including caring for aging and frail populations and round-the-clock staffing needs, CEO of Life’s WORC , Janet Koch, explained to Fox News that group homes for the developmentally disabled population have the same challenges -- plus incremental issues.

Life's WORC is an organization that provides support and services to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism. Their main provision of service is group homes where about six adults typically live together in a home within a community.

“We've been trying to have staff wear masks, but very often people with autism don't want to wear the mask themselves,” said Koch. “So just everyday challenges become that much more difficult for the people working in our homes.”

Jon and Stacy Zauderer’s 27-year-old son Mathew has autism, is mostly non-verbal, and has a history of having aggressive behaviors. Mathew has been living in a Life’s WORC group home for three-and-a-half years.

“Not only do you have to safeguard the people who live in group homes like seniors who are medically at risk, but you also have to work with the comprehension of somebody like my son Mathew,” Jon Zauderer told Fox News. “Mathew cannot understand, 'why am I not going out?' 'Why can't I go to the park? Why do I have to wear this mask?'”

Koch explained that direct support professionals who work at group homes are now under more pressure due to COVID-19 because friends and families are no longer able to visit due to social distancing restrictions. The staff is fulfilling roles of caregiver, program manager, and health provider all while keeping the group home sanitized from COVID-19 and making do with dwindling resources.

“People who are very medically compromised have so much more risk of contracting the disease,” said Koch. “We're asking direct care workers who really have low paying jobs, we're not funded that much, so they're close to minimum wage jobs. And it's often one and two jobs that these people have and they have to go back-and-forth to their own homes and put people at risk. We’re asking an unbelievable amount out of these workers.”

Stacy and Jon told Fox News that they have not been able to see or speak with Mathew in six weeks. They are unable to FaceTime him or speak on the phone with him because it would elicit a very strong response and Mathew would not understand why they couldn’t see him. While heartbroken, Stacy and Jon are able to have some piece-of-mind because they know their son is in capable hands.

“About four weeks ago, we sent Mathew a mini trampoline, and the staff sent us a video of him,” said Jon. “Not only was he bouncing with a big smile on his face, but you could also hear all the staff cheering him on. They really care and are like surrogate parents in an environment where we can't be.”

Koch told Fox News that, besides donations, if people are interested in helping both the residents and direct care workers it could be something as simple as dropping off board games or offering to have food or water delivered to the home. Acknowledging how much these employees do is also important, Koch said.

“It's just recognition that they, too, are healthcare professionals,” said Koch. “They often go unnoticed and people just don't see the difficulty of their job.”

Stacy and John echoed their gratitude for the direct support professionals at Life’s WORC.

“These people are really heroes," said Stacy. “They're really just stepping up and filling holes and gaps and they're keeping it all together for our son.”

For more on Life’s WORC watch the full interview with Janet Koch and Jon and Stacy Zauderer above.

 Emily DeCiccio is a reporter and video producer for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio