Senior Living Providers Respond to Wildfires, Smoke In Midst of Pandemic

As wildfires burned millions of acres on the West Coast, senior living providers in the region grappled with another problem in addition to the pandemic: thick smoke and poor air quality.

Last week, countless people along the West Coast woke up to “apocalyptic” orange and red skies as historic wildfires burned millions of acres of land in California. The fires sent plumes of smoke into the atmosphere, turning parts of the Golden State and the Pacific Northwest into hazardous zones with air quality rivaling the worst spots in the world. So far, at least 24 people have died and thousands more have had to evacuate their homes as a result of the fires.

This prompted some senior living providers — including Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) and Frontier Management — to evacuate a handful of communities in some of the hardest-hit areas in accordance with local requirements. And even where senior living residents haven’t had to evacuate, they are still feeling the effects on their health and daily routines on top of the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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For instance, members of the California Assisted Living Association (CALA) are experiencing the same air quality issues as most Californians, according to Sally Michael, the organization’s president and CEO. The organization has so far aided some communities that evacuated due to the wildfires.

“This has affected residents of assisted living in the same way it has affected everyone in the areas where air quality is bad: they stay inside and limit physical activity outside,” Michael told SHN. “Residents who have any health issues are always encouraged to stay in close contact with their personal physician and assisted living provides support to that end.”

The Oregon Health Care Association (OHCA) counts about 60 long-term care facilities that were evacuated and one that was destroyed by the wildfire. The association’s member communities are also working with the state of Oregon and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) for support and assistance, according to OHCA Communications Coordinator Catherine Van.

“State agencies and OHCA are communicating additional reminders and strategies to providers on continued diligence with infection prevention measures to limit the exposure of Covid-19, and on following recommendations from the public health officials on staying indoors due to poor air quality,” Van told SHN.

Brentwood, Tennessee-based Brookdale — the nation’s largest senior living provider with 737 communities — was forced to evacuate a community in Medford, Oregon, last week as conditions deteriorated. That community’s residents were relocated to a hotel in Corvallis, Oregon, and are expected to return to their home Tuesday, according to Heather Hunter, a public relations project manager with Brookdale.

To help mitigate hazardous air quality conditions, the provider installed “air-scrubbers” at the community in Medford. Brookdale also is monitoring those residents for respiratory effects. Brookdale’s communities are stocked with water, food and supplies, including N95 masks and face coverings, hand sanitizer and disinfectants, and the company has contracts in place with its food and water distributors to provide emergency supplies as needed.

Portland, Oregon-based Frontier, meanwhile, is dealing with poor outdoor air quality at nearly all of its Western U.S. locations. The provider evacuated and safely relocated residents at two of its communities near Portland, Oregon, due to the air quality, even as the fire itself posed little threat to either community. The company was also prepared to evacuate several others in the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon regions, but ultimately didn’t need to.

Despite the disruptions from the wildfires, Frontier’s infection control policies surrounding social distancing and minimal visits may have helped it avoid the most devastating or hazardous conditions, according to President and CEO Greg Roderick.

“[The poor air quality] is being mitigated through keeping exit doors and windows closed, changing and cleaning air filtration systems and educating both staff and residents on these practices,” Frontier told Senior Housing News.

Although Roderick said move-ins naturally slow during disruptions such as those posed by wildfires, these events are usually short-lived and thus aren’t expected to cause lasting challenges for Frontier. As such, the company does not currently plan to change its growth or management strategy along the West Coast, where multiple devastating fires have burned and spread in recent years.

“We are always prepared to manage through emergency conditions, at every location nationally, as that is part of our licensing guidelines and something that we take very seriously,” Roderick said.

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