With Covid-19 infection rates surging across the country, senior living providers are once again tightening restrictions and relying on pandemic response protocols established over the last eight months.
Atria Senior Living has consistently emphasized the importance of Covid-19 testing as a cornerstone of its strategy, and that again is in evidence. Over the last two weeks, the Louisville, Kentucky-based provider will have completed about 18,000 tests, bringing its total to about 150,000, CEO John Moore said Thursday during a virtual town hall. Atria operates more than 200 communities across the United States and Canada.
The tests have been conducted through a partnership with Mayo Clinic Labs, which is part of Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic.
The Saturday afternoon last April when he had a phone call with Mayo Clinic Labs is still vivid in Moore’s memory, and he suggested that its impact can hardly be overstated.
“Certainly [it was] a turning point in how we felt about our ability to manage through the pandemic, but it also may be a turning point in Atria, overall,” he said.
At that time, disease activity was heavily concentrated in the Northeast, where Atria operates many communities, including in and around New York City. Testing was not yet widely available, but Atria’s leadership had identified that surveillance testing of staff members would be crucial to ensuring the safety of communities.
The thinking was that residents largely were protected because they were within the walls of a community, but the coronavirus could infiltrate via staff members who became infected during their commute or in other situations.
The partnership with Mayo Clinic Labs began with testing Atria’s workforce and expanded from there, with Mayo able to consistently meet requests for additional capacity.
That is due in large part to the robust global infrastructure that the renowned Mayo Clinic already had in place, according to Dr. William Morice, president of Mayo Clinic Labs, who also spoke during the town hall.
“At Mayo, we have very streamlined logistics, where we fly a FedEx plane in twice daily from all over the country — FedEx has dedicated shipments to Rochester — so we’re able to turn those tests around really quickly,” he said.
On average, Atria is receiving results of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests within 2.4 days of the test being administered, Moore noted.
Atria also is utilizing the Abbot BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests, which have been distributed to senior living providers by the federal government. The advantage of these tests is that they provide on-the-spot results within about 15 minutes, but the downside is that they are less reliable than PCR tests. So, Atria’s strategy has evolved to include contact tracing related to positive results from the BinaxNOW test, as well as corroborating PCR tests.
With various types of Covid-19 testing available, “it’s been really confusing” for people to understand the differences, and challenging for organizations to determine how to best leverage the various options, Morice said. He praised Atria’s commitment to using tests in the most effective ways.
In terms of what’s next on the testing front, Morice said that Mayo Clinic Labs is continuing to work on tests that can help predict how sick an individual will get if they do contract Covid-19. Knowing this can help determine who should receive treatments such as monoclonal antibody therapies, which can help reduce the severity and duration of infections.
Another “very exciting” test in development would indicate not only whether an individual has Covid-19, but how likely they are to spread the virus. Having this information could help alleviate some of the burdens currently placed on people to self-isolate.
Morice and Moore are optimistic about the prospect for an effective Covid-19 vaccine, given recent good news. But they both emphasized that in the meantime, a multi-layered approach to infection control is most effective.
They used the metaphor of swiss cheese. Each slice of swiss cheese has holes, but a stack of swiss cheese does not. Similarly, each method of Covid-19 mitigation has shortcomings, but together they go a long way toward keeping people safe. The layers include handwashing and social distancing, wearing masks, and minimizing potential exposure to the virus. Testing provides an additional safety net.
“It’s about trying to put together the right system … to make living at Atria, even in a pandemic, better than living alone,” Moore said.