Tech, Operations and Design Combine for Senior Living Infection Control Innovation

Even with the prospect of a safe and effective vaccine on the horizon, it’s clear the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to disrupt the senior living industry for months or even years to come.

In the post-Covid world, senior living providers will likely need to collect more data about their residents than ever before as part of the effort to keep the coronavirus from spreading in their communities. At the same time, they will need to implement new infection control and design strategies that both protect residents while keeping them from feeling isolated.

Companies including Bellevue, Washington-based provider Aegis Living, global health technology firm Philips, and senior living design firm Thoma-Holec Design are focusing their efforts on infection control strategies to last through the end of Covid-19 and beyond. 

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One big reason why is that current residents and their families simply expect more out of communities with regard to safety, according to Tom Laborde, former COO and current infection control and safety officer at Aegis Living. But beyond that, they want to stay engaged and connected, even during a pandemic that forces people farther apart physically.

Having evolved through the safety aspect of the pandemic, Aegis is now also placing a lot of emphasis on keeping residents from being isolated, Laborde said during a recent Senior Housing News webinar.

Data-driven future

Underpinning any successful infection control strategy is at least some information gathering, and senior living providers these days are managing an ever more complicated slate of data. But the industry should not stop there, according to Jason Broad, senior living solutions leader at Philips. As he looks across the senior living industry, Broad sees the need for more robust and real-time data.

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“What we are seeing is an expectation from residents and from communities to have much more intelligent data,” Broad said during the webinar. “That data can then be used to really try to transform how we can keep people healthy.”

Regarding how providers might collect that data, Broad envisions a day when most or all residents carry wearable devices that transmit their location, making contact tracing and infection control easier in the process.

“We need to have rich data that comes off of those wearable devices, namely around where people are, who they’re interacting with, what that interaction looks like,” Broad said. “And not just from a resident standpoint, but from all the individuals who are going through those communities.”

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But data is useless unless it serves a purpose. To that end, senior living providers would do well to find a way to share that data across their entire organizations.

“It needs to go to a location where we can do data analytics across the entire community, and more importantly, across the community of communities,” Broad said. “For us, a big part of that is moving the data out from the community … and into the cloud.”

Using that data, providers can track symptoms and vitals, quarantine residents or staff when necessary and pinpoint where the biggest risks for new infections lie in both their communities and in their total senior living portfolios. But Broad stressed that no one technology solution can do everything, so it is important to ensure that data can migrate among different systems or processes.

“What’s critical is that the platforms that are put in place need to be able to integrate [with] third-party … devices and services,” Broad said. “It needs to be integrated together into one platform versus a singular solution from one vendor who’s just going to manage it all for every single community.”

Infection control innovations

Since the outset of the pandemic, many senior living providers have shifted from operational models centered on hospitality and socialization to ones that focus on high-quality clinical care. At Aegis, which has 32 communities throughout Washington, California and Nevada, that begins with robust infection control measures informed by a coronavirus advisory council of doctors and medical experts.

Earlier this year, the company began implementing innovative infection control measures at its new communities, such as “air-scrubbing” devices from RGF Environmental Group.

“They fit into the air handling system, and they are activated when the heating or air comes on,” Laborde said. “Through UVC light, they produce hydrogen peroxide plasma, and that plasma then goes through the ducting into the common areas and actually safely kills bacteria, viruses, and eliminates other [volatile organic compounds].”

Aegis is implementing similar devices for airflow in its resident apartments, Laborde said. The company also performs health screening of all incoming staff and visitors using technology that automatically takes temperatures and logs that data in its system.

At the heart of Aegis’ infection control strategy is a belief that residents no doubt want safer communities in the age of Covid-19 — but, crucially, they don’t want to give up the senior living lifestyle, either. To that end, the company has found creative ways to keep residents engaged and safe, such as plexiglass-wrapped “outdoor living rooms” for residents to visit with family members, even while social distancing.

“It’s cool to do clinical in a social model environment that resembles a Five Diamond resort,” Laborde said.

Designs for the future

As more providers work infection control into their operations, they’re also looking at new ways to include those principles in how communities themselves are designed.

Already, new communities are opening their doors with infection control features built into their designs. Some design innovations coming down the pike include main entryways that serve a double duty as Covid-19 information centers, special visitation areas and dedicated entrances for mail or delivery workers, according to Keith Stanton, director of design development at Thoma-Holec.

“We’re typically the advocate for the residents and their safety,” Stanton said. “In these construction meetings with the developers, with the architects, that’s our main goal.”

Materials and fabrics themselves can also play a role in infection control. For example, providers might choose furniture or carpets with “performance fabrics” that can be washed or bleached. Or, they might choose countertops or bars that are spacious enough to accommodate social distancing measures, and carry UV-baked finishes that are resistant to scratches, heat and chemicals.

Thoma-Holec is also advocating for communities that have access to the outdoors, and come with wider corridors to allow for social distancing. The overall goal is to make communities safer without sacrificing too much aesthetically or appearing clinical. And, much of this is not new to the senior living industry, he added.

“These are time-tested interior design practices that we’ve been doing for our memory care communities,” Stanton said. “We’re just bringing them out to the rest of the communities.”

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