Senior Living Providers Must Keep All Options Open in Covid-19 Fight

When it comes to keeping the coronavirus out of a senior living community, providers should be willing to take drastic measures — and they should be thinking about them right now.

In some instances where outbreaks are particularly severe, that may include temporarily stopping tours, freezing new admissions and visits, isolating some residents, halting congregate dining and preparing for widespread staffing shortages.

The global threat from Covid-19 is rapidly growing. In the U.S. alone, the number of newly reported cases is rising quickly, making mitigation ever more challenging. Because older adults are especially susceptible to Covid-19, the situation is even more dire for the senior housing industry. That is evidenced by the coronavirus outbreak at Life Care Centers in Kirkland, Washington, where 18 residents have died.

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This is exactly why senior living providers should prepare for such measures now rather than later, according to JoAnne Carlin, vice president of clinical risk services at global advisory, broking and solutions company Willis Towers Watson.

“This is stuff that you should be thinking through right now,” Carlin said on a webinar regarding mitigating the coronavirus outbreak Tuesday. “Because when it happens, you don’t want to have to scramble for ideas.”

Here are a few of the top tips for senior living providers shared during Tuesday’s webinar:

Start with an incident command center

Before engaging in any other Covid-19 mitigation strategies, senior living providers should first establish a clear chain of command that involves all of the company’s different departments and leaders, from operations and clinical to food and housekeeping.

“You should pull your [contagious outbreak policy procedure] plan together immediately,” Carlin said. “Start with incident command so that everybody in the company and the community knows their role and responsibilities.”

Although many providers already have a contagious outbreak plan in place, now is a good time to review and update it. Initial questions to ask include: Do communities have enough supplies? Are residents properly monitored for symptoms? Are caregivers and other employees properly trained? Are travel restrictions in place? Which communities are at greatest risk? How will we communicate with residents, their families and the media?

Communities themselves should also have incident command centers and task forces staffed by managers, supervisors, nurse leaders and other administrative workers. The important thing is to know exactly who will do what in any probable outbreak scenario.

“Don’t just take for granted that people are going to do things,” Carlin said. “Everyone has to be accountable for their part of overseeing that plan.”

Be prepared to take drastic measures

Should an outbreak occur nearby, providers must keep all options on the table.

In the event of a local outbreak — even one that hasn’t hit the community yet — providers should consider stopping tours, halting new admissions, screening or barring visitors and moving social and dining activities away from group settings and into residents’ rooms, among other measures. 

And senior living companies should plan for widespread staffing shortages, and potentially even prepare to temporarily house employees who are crucial to their residents’ care.

“If you think of an experience like a hurricane where you have to shelter in place, you may have to make arrangements for your employees to stay in the building,” Carlin said.

Senior living providers can prepare in part by thinking about the minimum number of employees it would take to run a community. And family members can help out, too, in times of extreme staffing burdens, Carlin said.

“You may not have three or four caregivers at any given day, it might be the administrator and one of their caregivers,” Carlin said. “If it gets to the point where you don’t have enough staff, you have to consider other resources and other individuals that could help while also reducing the time of tasks.”

Watch closely for symptoms

Perhaps the most important component of any outbreak plan is monitoring residents and employees for symptoms, both of Covid-19 and of other infectious diseases, and developing a plan for when you detect them. Documentation is crucial for this step.

Workers who experience any flu-like symptoms should go home and stay there until their symptoms have subsided for at least 48 hours, according to Rhonda DeMeno, director of clinical risk services with Willis Towers Watson.

“You will want to work closely with your human resource department to see if you have a plan or a temporary policy in place so that missed work is not counted against the employee’s sick time or PTO time,” DeMeno said.

Many employees also have jobs at other senior living communities, meaning providers should stay vigilant in watching for outbreaks elsewhere in their cities, DeMeno added.

Residents should be checked every day for flu-like symptoms — likely multiple times per day — and get evaluated immediately should any arise. And, providers should know how to contact local authorities should they have a resident with a Covid-19 diagnosis.

“If you have one or more people that begin to experience these symptoms, this could mean that you’re going to have an outbreak,” DeMeno said. “At that point, you want to contact all the residents to determine if they’re having any symptoms and respond accordingly.”

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