By Eric Gorton, contributor
Josh Williams said the uneasiness set in with all the news coverage at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It really hit home when a fellow resident was diagnosed with the disease and Gemeinschaft Home went into quarantine.
During the quarantine, from April 10 to 27, residents of Gemeinschaft Home, a program providing therapeutic services to nonviolent, non-sexual offenders who have been released or diverted from incarceration in support of a transition to healthy community living, were not allowed to leave the facility on Mount Clinton Pike, just west of Harrisonburg, and no visitors were allowed.
Williams, a 35-year-old Tidewater native who was placed at Gemeinschaft Home by the Virginia Department of Corrections in October, said his fears have diminished since the quarantine ended and he returned to his job at a local meatpacking plant, where he has talked to people who recovered from the disease.
“I have spoken with a few different individuals who contracted it,” he said in an interview via Zoom. “It helped me deal with my nerves pertaining to the COVID. I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s made out to be now.”
But he did have concerns during the quarantine.
“At first it scared me a little bit. It shocked me. The media, every time you turned things on, you know, it’s COVID-19 and then it’s death related to it, so of course it did shock me, I did panic a little bit at first,” he said.
On top of the health concerns, Williams said he also worried at the beginning of the quarantine that he might lose his job.
Sharon Ringgold, executive director of Gemeinschaft Home, said she worked with human resources directors at a number of businesses that employ Gemeinschaft residents to make sure the businesses understood the situation and that the men would not lose their jobs. None did, and except for some who work at restaurants that remain closed, they have returned to work.
Strict protocols enacted after positive tests
To date, two Gemeinschaft residents have tested positive for COVID-19. The first was diagnosed April 6 when he was taken to Sentara RMH for a heart attack. That resident did not show signs of COVID-19 despite his positive test, Ringgold said. He has since recovered from the heart attack, been cleared of COVID-19, and transitioned to the Charlottesville area. The other resident had an asthma attack, a low-grade fever and body aches and was also hospitalized. He remains in the Harrisonburg area, but not at Gemeinschaft Home.
While the program can normally house 49 residents, it had 22 when the quarantine went into effect. Williams said there has been plenty of room for social distancing. During the quarantine, residents were required to wear masks in the common areas of the home and when meeting with staff. “The staff sat everybody down and let everybody know what was going on and from there they handed every individual masks and basically asked you to wear it around the house, asked you to wear it around staff and things like that,” he said.
The biggest change from before the pandemic, Williams said, was not being allowed to have passes to leave the home. “Due to the pandemic there has been a lot of adjustments with pass time. That’s the only thing that has really affected individuals. I believe that the Gemeinschaft staff handled this the best way that they possibly could,” he said.
Ringgold said Gemeinschaft Home stopped taking new residents on April 6 and started accepting them again May 1. Four or five residents who completed their time at Gemeinschaft during the quarantine left despite being encouraged to stay for safety reasons, she said. Since May 1, the house has added nine residents and was back to 31 residents Tuesday.
Gemeinschaft first put COVID-related restrictions in place March 13, when it stopped allowing visitors and canceled furloughs for residents placed there by the Department of Corrections. It also reduced its Day Reporting Center programs for residential and non-residential clients who receive counseling services from five days a week to two. A few residents, including Williams, have finished their 90-day DOC commitment, but have stayed as self-paying residents until they can finalize home plans. During normal times, residents who have been at the facility for half of their typical 90-day stay, can visit the area where they plan to live after they leave Gemeinschaft to work on their home plan.
After the severity of the pandemic became clearer, Gemeinschaft Home began restricting passes and ramping up cleaning chores. Heavy duty cleaning that was normally reserved for weekends has become a twice-a-day routine, even with the lifting of the quarantine, Ringgold said. The chores include cleaning baseboards, kitchen vents, behind and under bedroom furniture, and bathrooms. “Anything you can touch, disinfect it,” Ringgold said. “I think because the guys have been on quarantine, they understand this is serious. We need to continue to have safety in the home.”
Ringgold has continued to work at her office throughout the pandemic, but she altered staff schedules to reduce traffic in and out of the house. While the home has continued to be staffed 24 hours a day, shifts have been adjusted so staff spend more time working from home, she said. Even counseling sessions have been done electronically.
“When all this first started, we worked with Dr. Laura Kornegay [director of the Central Shenandoah Health District], on a plan of action and what that was going to look like, and lots of conference calls with her, with my correctional partners, of course with the DOC and things like that,” Ringgold said. “Overall it’s worked. We’ve done OK.”
Fundraising plans also upended
In addition to altering daily life at the home, the pandemic is interfering with the nonprofit organization’s “2020 Vision For The Future” fundraising campaign. The goal of reaching $220,000 by the end of the calendar year might be pushed back a year, Ringgold said. Gemeinschaft Home has also rescheduled its largest fundraiser, an annual banquet normally held in April, to August 28.
With $69,000 already raised, Ringgold said the home can move forward with planning and construction of a therapy garden and a workout room. The campaign also will fund a new residential women’s program and a licensed counselor. The home has earmarked $100,000 to begin the women’s program, which will be housed in a separate location from the men’s home, and $70,000 to hire the counselor. A publication planned to help celebrate the program’s 35th anniversary in June remains on schedule, Ringgold said.
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