Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Atria Senior Living CEO John Moore has said that the company will be stronger in the future thanks to lessons learned and innovations developed during this challenging period. Now, the company is unveiling Atria Newport Beach — touting the community as its “most pandemic-ready” to date and a glimpse of what the future holds.
The community in Orange County, California combines design elements and operational infrastructure that Atria was pursuing before the pandemic with features created in response to Covid-19, Moore told Senior Housing News.
“It underscores a lot of what we’ve learned and what we’ve seen, and it underscores a lot of the things that we already thought were important,” he said.
At the same time that the Louisville-based operator is building for the future, the company continues to flex in its response to Covid-19 as coronavirus infections surge in many parts of the country. Atria’s portfolio encompasses more than 200 communities in the United States and Canada.
Inside Atria Newport Beach
In 2018, the planning commission of Newport Beach signed off on Atria’s plans to heavily redevelop a two-building skilled nursing facility down the street from Hoag Hospital. Those plans involved demolishing and replacing one building and renovating the other building, at a reported cost of about $30 million.
Atria initially planned to open the newly constructed building during the summer of 2020, with the renovation of the existing building to follow. The pandemic pushed the timeline back, but the upside is that Atria was able to make some adaptations in response to Covid-19. On the whole, though, the pandemic affirmed the vision for future senior living communities that the company was pursuing even before the coronavirus reared its head, according to Moore.
One example is the decision to create more spacious apartments with full-size refrigerators and cooktops, rather than kitchenettes with microwaves. Atria already was moving in this direction at Newport Beach, as well as in urban projects underway with developer Related Cos., Moore said. Covid-19 only will increase demand for these types of living units, he believes.
“Being quarantined in a small studio is rough; being quarantined in your own apartment is much better,” he said.
Covid-19 has also highlighted the importance of having spacious common areas that allow for social distancing, as well as easy and plentiful accessibility to the outdoors. Atria Newport Beach meets these imperatives in a variety of ways, taking advantage of its location in Southern California.
“The building has a lot of light and air, and a lot of glass,” Moore said.
For example, apartments feature generous windows and Juliet balconies. And communal dining venues are built double-height with walls that open to the outside, with a covered outdoor dining space being created on a terrace between the two buildings. When that is completed next year, it will be large enough to accommodate four socially distanced gatherings at a time.
The design is intended to optimize opportunities for interaction without drawing attention to the fact that they are socially distanced. This is being accomplished in part by blending areas for socialization with other amenities, such as spaces for kids to play video games, according to a company-wide letter from Moore that was released in September.
Residents can welcome visitors in a dedicated space that is accessed directly from the outside of the building, so that guests will not have to go through a lobby.
Atria has long been a tech-forward company, going so far as to create an in-house operating platform, and technology infuses Atria Newport Beach in various ways.
Smart home systems are included in each resident apartment, as a way to control the thermostat, lighting and other aspects of the environment. The system is controllable through an interface on pre-installed smart TVs.
CarePredict wearables — similar to a smart watch — are also going to be deployed for resident and staff use. The technology enables contact tracing in the event that someone is diagnosed with Covid-19 or a future infectious disease. Among other features, the wearables can also serve as a key to allow for touchless entry to apartments; can flag changes in health indicators such as temperature and blood pressure; can detect falls; and serve as two-way communication devices between residents and staff. Plans call for the wearables to be integrated with Atria’s resident and family app, so that real-time wellness information will be readily accessible.
Telehealth has proven to be invaluable in connecting senior living residents with health care providers during the pandemic, and is poised to play a larger role even after the pandemic. Atria has partnered with Northwell Health on telehealth on the East Coast, and is working with Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. Atria is creating dedicated spaces and more advanced telehealth capabilities at its Newport Beach community and other properties in its portfolio.
In general, having an on-site physician’s office staffed through partnerships with medical practices or health systems will be a standard feature of senior living communities of the future, Moore believes. Properties like Newport Beach that are already located close to medical centers will have an advantage in terms of easily accessible health care services.
Atria is in the process of segmenting its portfolio into distinct brands, and the Newport Beach community is part of the company’s Signature brand. While Signature communities are high-end, the approach to design and operations at Newport Beach can be adapted to properties that will serve a more moderate price-point, Moore said.
For example, the CarePredict wearables are already in use at a community in suburban Boston that is going to be redeveloped as part of the company’s emerging, middle-market Gladwell brand.
Leveraging wearables should enable senior living communities to operate more efficiently by taking a data-driven approach, which should in turn support lower rates, Moore said.
“It’s technology for both customers that are interested in investing in the most value they can get, and also customers who are interested in the most options they can get,” he said.
Instilling confidence in residents, staff
As of now, Atria is planning to welcome the first residents to the Newport Beach building in December — and this is not the first community that the company has opened in the midst of the pandemic. Others have included Atria Lafayette Hill in Philadelphia; Atria Ridgefield in Ridgefield, Connecticut; and Atria Mount Pleasant in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina.
Given the constraints of Covid-19, lease-up has been successful at these properties, according to Moore.
Many consumers are understandably hesitant about moving into communal living environments in the midst of Covid-19, so calming their fears related to infection risk and social isolation has become a key part of the sales and marketing process.
“It’s all about giving everybody confidence that you’re doing all you can,” Moore said.
To that end, Atria has released plentiful data related to its Covid-19 response. The company has spent about $42 million on supplies and operating expenses such as additional pay for frontline workers. It has distributed more than 1 million N95/KN95 masks, 2.6 million surgical masks, 330,000 gowns, 13 million gloves and 28,000 goggles. Through a partnership with Mayo Clinic Laboratories, Atria has administered about 125,000 Covid-19 tests. About 8,900 people have been under investigation, meaning they were under quarantine and checked for symptoms.
Another key to building confidence among current and prospective residents is having a clearly delineated plan for how operations will adapt to fluctuating rates of Covid-19 infections, Moore said.
Over the summer, Atria determined that a “two-dimensional” approach is necessary, he explained. One of those dimensions relates to Covid-19 activity within a senior living community, and the other dimension relates to infection rates within the broader market where a community is located.
As these internal and external factors demand, an Atria community enacts certain protocols. For instance, a community in “Covid Watch” can allow residents to gather in groups of up to 15 people, but if the community ratchets up to “moderate exposure measures” (MEMs), group gatherings are limited to 5 people.
In recent weeks, Atria communities in certain parts of the country have escalated to more stringent protocols. For example, Illinois communities are now practicing “high exposure measures” (HEMs).
“You’re clearly seeing some more disease activity,” Moore said.
The Atria leadership team is meeting every day at 2:30 to review every case and the latest data related to Covid-19 spread and impacts in various markets, and decisions related to testing and other operational approaches are discussed and confirmed at a daily 5:00 meeting with leaders in the field.
Despite the demands placed on staff throughout the last several months, Moore is heartened by the resilience of the Atria team. Turnover has declined during the pandemic, and the company is recruiting the lowest number of executive directors that Moore can remember, with the company’s usual twice-annual employee survey showing that satisfaction went up in July.
Moore takes these numbers as evidence that the company has done a good job of communicating expectations and providing the necessary support to team members, including by making sure they have the proper personal protective equipment, supporting the health of their families by providing supplies and other resources, and recognizing extraordinary contributions through hero pay, “Above and Beyond” gift cards and other initiatives.
While excited about what Atria is bringing to the market in Newport Beach and elsewhere, Moore emphasized that the success of the business ultimately depends upon its people.
“It’s how you open buildings in pandemics,” he said. “It’s how you make progress and get through this.”