Aegis President: Fast-Moving Coronavirus Situation Demands Extraordinary Precautions, Calm Mindset

Senior living providers across the country are taking steps to guard against COVID-19 and have protocols in place should the novel coronavirus infect residents or staff members. But the situation is most urgent for providers with a significant footprint in Washington state, where the first U.S. coronavirus deaths occurred and where the virus has already infiltrated one senior care facility.

“This started in Washington, so we probably have a closer view of it than people who don’t operate there,” Aegis Living President Kris Engskov told Senior Housing News.

Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis has nearly 20 operational assisted living and memory care communities in the state. The company began planning weeks ago for the “inevitability” of COVID-19 appearing in the United States, but the company has taken more “extraordinary” measures in the last few days, Engskov said.

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No coronavirus cases have been reported in Aegis communities, but the company is in close contact with public health authorities in Washington, and is determined to meet or exceed all state and federal guidelines related to coronavirus, he said. Among the protocols in place are:

— Enhanced daily disinfection procedures at communities

— Emergency stores of food, disposable and washable protective wear and other supplies that might be needed

— More intensive monitoring and screening of visitors and vendors, to ensure they are not displaying COVID-19 symptoms

— Cancellation of meetings and other events that would have involved a significant number of visitors to communities

— Daily leadership team meetings to assess the latest information

— Changes in food service, including suspending grab-and-go bistro offerings

Proactive communication with residents, their families and Aegis staff members is also crucial, Engskov said. The goal of communication is not only to relay information but to enlist the help of everyone who interacts with Aegis.

“In the very first letter we sent over the weekend to families, we were very clear that we were sending this to let them know what we were doing but also ask for their help, because the more people that come into a community unnecessarily, there’s a higher risk,” Engskov said.

Aegis is facilitating phone calls or video connections between residents and family members, and family members are being “incredibly cooperative,” he added.

Previously scheduled move-ins are proceeding, he said, but tours for prospective residents are being curtailed.

Aegis is acting with an abundance of caution because, as COVID-19 is a new virus, there are uncertainties around potential impacts.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Engskov said. “ … This is pretty fast moving.”

That uncertainty and the rapidly evolving situation create anxiety, but Engskov also stressed that “everybody should remain calm.” He agrees with comments made by Welltower CEO Tom DeRosa, that senior living providers already have extensive experience with infection control related to the seasonal influenza, meaning communities already have policies and procedures in place to limit exposure to the virus and care for anyone who should become infected.

Other providers, both those based in Washington and others around the country, are taking similar actions related to coronavirus.

Seattle-based Merrill Gardens released a letter and a video of the company’s president, Tana Gall, explaining steps being taken related to coronavirus and sharing a hotline number for anyone with additional questions. Gall conveyed many of the same points as Engskov.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and while it’s important to remain calm, we also want to ensure the health and safety of our residents, team members in our communities,” Gall said. “ … While this virus is new to us, our community teams have years of experience in handling other contagious diseases such as the flu, and our teams are well-trained in our protocols.”

Brentwood, Tennessee-based Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) is the nation’s largest provider and operates several communities in Washington state. Like Merrill Gardens, Brookdale released a video in which CEO Cindy Baier explains steps the company has taken related to coronavirus, and Brookdale also released a toolkit of COVID-19 resources. These resources include template letters to external audiences and business partners, requesting that they curtain non-essential community visits.

Given that it is a newly identified virus, much remains to be learned about COVID-19. However, one fact has become increasingly clear as infections have spread across the globe: the virus is especially dangerous for older adults.

“The elderly are particularly at risk from the coronavirus, so I think we have a responsibility to take whatever precautions are necessary to protect residents and staff,” Engskov said.

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