The outbreak’s third wave peaked in December following the arrival of cold weather and holiday travel. The highest numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths occurred in December and were far surpassing the April peak. The vast majority of providers were aware of the coronavirus’s transmission once it became widespread. And while health experts have warned for months that a winter wave of cases could be quite challenging, and the number had threatened to swamp an industry that has been working cautiously.
In the early part of winter, The Springs Living, which has 18 communities in Montana and Oregon and is based in McMinnville, Oregon, managed well through the Pandemic. Then came the third wave, which overwhelmed staff and threatened to hurt residents and each other. To make matters worse, vaccination clinics did not begin until January 4, when they would offer some measure of relief.
Their experiences with Covid-19 were varied, including when their organizations were hit the hardest and how the Pandemic revealed strengths and weaknesses. But nearly all expressed the hope that occupancy and NOI will return to pre-pandemic levels shortly, at least for them.
During tough times, several factors came into play.
Having experienced the Pandemic firsthand, many operators remarked that the early weeks were the toughest.
It was in mid-March through late April for Juniper Communities, Bloomfield, New Jersey – due to not being sure how the novel coronavirus was spread, nor just how contagious it really would be once an exposure occurred, Founder and CEO Lynne Katzmann said.
Some operators concur with Stubblefield that the worst month of the Pandemic occurred in December.
Covid-19 positives dropped to historic lows for HumanGood on October 31, and resident and staff infections decreased to fewer than ten. However, during the fall wave, rates shot up, according to CEO John Cochrane, as many organizations were unprepared for it.
This Pleasanton, California company also ranks number six on the 2016 list of the top 200 nonprofit operators and has a portfolio of 20 CCRCs and affordable apartment complexes nationwide. The concentration of new cases so close to the holidays hit residents, staff, and families alike.
According to CEO Larry Gumina, December was also Ohio Living’s most challenging month of 2018.
Ohio Living, along with the rest of the state, was experiencing the peak of Covid-19 severity. An operational challenge at the time involved low census, and the manager teams struggled to thrive during the intense pandemic response.
Employees were reminded by Ohio Living leadership to concentrate on what they can control, which improved morale.
Another provider emphasized that every month was a unique struggle, and no one month was more challenging than the next.
The CEO of Brookdale Senior Living, Cindy Baier, stated that each new month presented new challenges that Brookdale Senior Living, based in Brentwood, Tennessee, needed to adapt and recalibrate its responses based on changing CDC and state guidance.
There have been some shortcomings, but positive changes have been made.
Katzmann pointed out that the Covid-19 virus was mainly found in global hotspots such as Italy, South Korea, and China in the early days. Few treatment options for the virus were available then.
Based on the uncertainty of the Pandemic, the provider decided in April to conduct universal testing on all residents and staff, rather than a narrowly targeted testing of people with symptoms as recommended by public health officials at the time. Juniper confirmed on April 4 that positive cases were more significant than anticipated in its communities and that asymptomatic people had a high risk of spreading the disease to others.
In case of a pandemic, Juniper will likely stay true to some of its early lessons, such as that of masks and vaccinations not only work against Covid-19 but against common flu outbreaks like the one last winter, which Juniper abolished with their implementation.
With the vaccination clinic’s effectiveness for Covid-19, Juniper plans to expand its idea for mandatory vaccinations in the future. Currently, only one state in which the company operates mandates vaccinations, and at this point, only a single state mandates the procedure.
Cedar Communities’ CEO Rich Foster believes the Pandemic exposed a lack of communication within the company following a major disaster.
It became more difficult for Cedar and its operating partners to put policies in place when more testing became available and a more significant amount of information about Covid-19 became known.
Facilitating this process was Cedar leadership, which had daily communications with local administrators, sharing updates about events taking place all over the nation. By rebranding Cedar’s central office as a corporate solution center, this shift cemented the change in Cedar’s view of the central office’s role as a ‘top-down’ provider of operations to the operator.
During the previous years, a senior living facility that cultivated a highly desirable culture reacted to Covid-19 more rapidly, while those whose hiring and staffing were problematic before the Pandemic found operations and staffing issues exacerbated.
Cochrane said HumanGood’s culture, which it had long fought for, was able to hold up under pressures brought by Covid-19. HumanGood’s California communities had to contend with a rash of wildfires which threatened the safety of residents and staff. Additionally, staff at communities displayed agility, perseverance, curiosity, and decisiveness in responding to the virus.
Cochrane believes the company’s capability to respond to numerous issues in a sustained way will form an essential foundation for future growth and management.
As Stubblefield said, Covid-19 taught him that operations must be invested in just as much — if not more — than buildings. Leaders who succeed in fostering a resurgence in consumer confidence in senior living and care providers, especially those who weren’t able to learn lessons from Covid-19, will lag behind continued decline after the Pandemic.
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