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Michelle Abernathy (right) and her boyfriend Torrence Jones worked together at Ludeman Developmental Center in Park Forest before she became the first of three workers there to die from COVID-19.
Michelle Abernathy (right) and her boyfriend Torrence Jones worked together at Ludeman Developmental Center in Park Forest before she became the first of three workers there to die from COVID-19.
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Michelle Abernathy wasn’t just another COVID-19 victim. She made a difference.

The death toll at Ludeman Developmental Center in Park Forest where she worked is now 6 — 3 developmentally disabled residents, 3 staffers. Ludeman really needs more PPE.

Torrence Jones remembers the day his girlfriend Michelle Abernathy learned a developmentally disabled resident of Ludeman Developmental Center, where they worked, had become the first person there to test positive for COVID-19.

It was March 28, a Saturday. Abernathy had stopped by the Park Forest campus to catch up on work. She was informed the stricken man lived in a housing unit under her supervision.

Abernathy, 52, made sure the resident was receiving proper care and that her staff had personal protective equipment, Jones said.

By the next night, Abernathy had a fever. Fifteen days later, she was dead, a victim of the coronavirus.

The Illinois Department of Human Services revealed this past week that the death toll at Ludeman has reached six — three staff members and three residents.

The latest to die: Jose Velez and Cephus Lee. They worked in Ludeman’s dietary department, delivering meals from a central kitchen to the 38 residential homes that comprise the facility.

Ludeman has been hit harder than the other 13 state-operated residential and hospital sites that care for people with developmental disabilities and mental health needs. As of Thursday, 155 of its 344 residents had tested positive, with 91 awaiting results. The rest tested negative.

Officials say most of those residents haven’t had any symptoms, and there’s hope the worst has passed.

It’s a brighter picture than what’s happening in nursing homes around the state, where the death toll is much higher for similarly situated residents — though advocates say the state isn’t reporting COVID data on thousands of disabled individuals in private, nonprofit residential facilities that are state-licensed.

Sixty-eight of 892 Ludeman employees have tested positive, but union officials say testing has been limited. They’re pressing to get tests offered onsite for all workers. The state is working to do that, a spokesperson said.

While my heart goes out to everyone at Ludeman affected by the outbreak, I’m concentrating on the staff in part because it’s difficult to imagine the terror that would come from seeing three coworkers drop dead in two weeks.

“There’s no question they’re concerned,” said Anne Irving, who works with Ludeman’s staff as regional director of AFSCME Council 31.

Irving said that concern is directed as much as anything toward the residents, with whom they’ve developed deep relationships.

Caring for developmentally disabled people is demanding in the best of times, heroic in a pandemic. These are jobs that do not allow for social distancing.

Most Ludeman residents have serious medical conditions or severe behavioral problems in addition to developmental disabilities. More than half are nonverbal.

That means hands-on work for the staff that can include feeding and bathing residents and helping them get dressed in addition to keeping them engaged and entertained to help pass time under quarantine.

Many residents don’t understand the need to be isolated in their rooms because of the highly infectious disease, said Sarah Ross, whose younger sister Kathy has lived at Ludeman for 34 of the past 37 years.

“They are the angels and heroes of this community,” Ross said of Ludeman’s staff.

Abernathy had started her job last fall after 20 years as an investigator for the state Department of Children and Family Services, looking out for abused and neglected children.

“I could see the love she had for these individuals,” said Jones, who started dating Abernathy after training her for the position.

With a bachelor’s degree from Chicago State and master’s from Sparta College, Abernathy was very involved with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, but always made time to watch the Bears — and Dallas Cowboys — play, Jones said.

They lived together in Chatham and planned to get engaged.

I wish I could tell you more about Velez and Lee, but I don’t know much. Velez worked for the agency for 30 years. Lee, 59, formerly of Markham, was there less than two years.

Ross said Ludeman has a continuing need for masks, gloves and gowns because the staff goes through so much each day. She asked me to plead for donations.

“At times, it seems we are a forgotten community,” she said.

Not today.

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