While hospitals stand at the front lines of the fight against the new coronavirus, an executive with a Colorado-based chain of senior living communities says they're next in line.
And that threat has the people who operate senior homes scrambling to secure protective gear and to train their staffs how best to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Of course, the first priority is the hospitals," says Pam Sullivan, vice president of communications and strategy for Douglas County-based Christian Living Communities. "Those are the people who are on the front line who will be working most closely with those who are sick with COVID-19. But, as we know, the numbers are climbing, and as the numbers climb, the hospitals will be at or beyond capacity. And those of us who are in senior living are being told ... to be prepared to care for COVID-19-sick people."
In the months that coronavirus has been spreading around the world, health experts have learned that older people are more likely to suffer severe symptoms than younger ones, and their death rate is higher.
There are nine senior living communities across Colorado either owned by CLC or managed by its Cappella Living Communities division, Sullivan tells Brian Willie of Rocky Mountain PBS in the video accompanying this story. They provide a range of care levels from assisted living through memory care to skilled nursing.
Already, one or more cases of coronavirus has been encountered in each of at least 14 Colorado senior communities, including a single sick resident at CLC's Someren Glen community in Centennial, The Denver Post reported March 31. That resident, who has been isolated, is "recovering well [and] feeling fine," Sullivan told The Post, and several other residents were being tested.
So far, "what we're seeing ... is very isolated situations and we're trying very hard to identify potential virus [infections]," Sullivan tells Willie. She says staff people are removed from a senior community if they show symptoms, and “if we have any resident with any symptoms, they are automatically going into isolation protocols, and then we begin a whole new level of cleaning," with agents that can kill the virus.
A COVID-19 outbreak at a Seattle-area nursing home -- which as of April 1 had left 37 dead -- was one of the early signals of the danger posed by COVID-19 in the United States. Senior-living professionals at CLC and other organization have watched that situation closely to learn what they can about how to respond to potential outbreaks, Sullivan says.
One challenge is making sure that CLC's on-site staffers have enough masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, to deal with the virus when it comes.
"The need for PPE is still at the hospitals, but it's also now rising in senior living communities," Sullivan says. "We need to be able to equip our front-line person with the same level of personal protective equipment as the hospitals to care for older adults who may become ill.
“And that then puts a strain on an already taxed system, and we already know there's a national shortage for PPE. So everyone now is competing for the same pot of equipment."
In response to the shortage, Sullivan says CLC has partnered with the Centura Health hospital chain and DispatchHealth, an urgent-care provider, to jointly order PPE supplies that will be split up among the three organizations. The purchasing partners hope to receive shipments starting this weekend, she says.
She also asks anyone who can donate PPE, or who has leads on where supplies can be obtained, to email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
The COVID risk puts added pressure on senior-community workers, she says.
"They understand that they are in a field that puts them at a higher risk because they have committed themselves to caring for others, and I applaud them for that. But this is an uncertain time. They're used to dealing with flu. They're used to dealing with norovirus. ... Those are known entities. COVID-19 is an unknown entity. So that creates ... more apprehension."
Sullivan says that CLC's managers are being "very transparent with our teams and sharing all the facts [about COVID]. There are daily trainings. ... We feel that as people have facts, ... and if we have the correct PPE for them, they feel more empowered and will be more secure in doing their jobs."
But CLC's communities and the seniors who live there also depend on the public to do its part, Sullivan says.
"If we all can adhere to social distancing and get the virus out of here, that is what's going to protect the older adults [and] help the front-line caregivers. We've really got to all do our part: social distance, stay at home, get the virus out of here, and let's flatten the curve so our front-line caregivers are not as high at risk."