With medical experts advising that the coronavirus outbreak could have particularly devastating consequences on older individuals and those with underlying health conditions, officials with long-term care facilities and skilled nursing homes in Cy-Fair said they have adopted stricter protocols in an effort to protect residents and staff.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines in mid-March to restrict visitation to long-term care facilities. Harris County officials took those guidelines a step further in a Stay Home-Work Safe Order that went into effect March 25. That order prohibits all nonessential visits to nursing homes, retirement homes and long-term care facilities, with exceptions only made for anyone providing critical assistance and for end-of-life visitation. On April 3, the CDC issued guidelines nationwide for facilities requiring them to immediately implement symptom screening for anyone who enters.
At the same time, many facilities are canceling group activities and are no longer serving meals in a communal setting.
The situation can be tough on both residents and staff members on the front lines, said Lori Alford, chief operating officer of Avanti Senior Living, which specializes in assisted living and memory care.
"We had to limit family visits weeks ago; it's hard on staff and hard on residents," Alford said. "The [workers] see how the residents are scared; the residents are sad. Our team feels the pressure of being that sunshine. I know that wears, and it’s hard."
However, Avanti, which has a Cypress facility in the Towne Lake area, is among the companies trying to use technology to keep residents connected. Even before the coronavirus outbreak hit, Avanti residents were all given iPads and had Skype accounts set up to allow them to connect to family members virtually, Alford said.
"The good thing is we were built for technology," she said. "We have a virtual engagement program, so now, families can log in and see photos of their loved ones, see activities going on [and] see what they are eating. We're trying to keep families as connected as possible."
Priscilla Duran, executive director of Sundance Memory Care in Cypress, said her facility has also begun using Skype and Zoom to keep residents connected to family members, including a new program where children who are attending school from home are encouraged to set aside time for reading sessions with their grandparents.
"We’re definitely just using technology as often as we can, seven days a week," Duran said. "Some wives are seeing their husbands daily. There are still ways to feel present without being present."
Both Duran and Alford said they are encouraging families to go back to the basics by sending family members handwritten cards and gifts through the mail. Alford said Avanti also posted on social media asking community members to send letters and create pen pal relationships.
"We have to do social distancing, but we have to remain connected," she said.
Senior living facilities throughout the Cy-Fair area have announced new guidelines in accordance with CDC recommendations for how they are running day-to-day operations.
Brookdale Senior Living, which operates senior living communities in 45 states, including one in the Willowbrook area of Houston, released a statement announcing it is restricting visitors and conducting health screenings on anyone entering any of their facilities.
"If a confirmed case occurs, the plan is to continue to act in full compliance with the CDC, local and state health authorities," company officials said in a statement published online. "The CDC has guidance for confirmed cases in health care settings; that guidance includes steps to minimize chances for exposure, adhering to personal protection protocols and managing visitor access."
At Avanti, everyone is screened as they walk in, including thermometer checks, Alford said. Residents and staff also have access to telehealth services, she said.
"We allow each of our employees to access our telemedicine portal if they are not feeling well, even if they don't have insurance," she said. "We're partnering with a doctor who screens to see if there are any symptoms for COVID-19 or not, and we make decisions on if they should come into the building. We’re providing visits for free from the convenience of their homes."
Sundance has implemented a protocol to keep associates working at only one facility rather than working across different Houston-area facilities, Duran said. Residents and staff are also being screened daily, she said.
Of the 17 coronavirus-related deaths in the Greater Houston area as of April 2, 14 were over age 70, according to records from various counties and health departments. Three of those deaths were residents of The Conservatory at Alden Bridge, a Montgomery County senior living facility where a shelter-in-place order was issued earlier this week.
So far, no cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at any Cy-Fair area facilities as of April 2, including at Avanti at Towne Lake and Sundance Senior Living.
"We’re not naïve to think that we’re out of the woods," Alford said. "We just are doing the best that we can to try to keep a bubble."
Both Duran and Alford emphasized the importance of keeping staff members happy and healthy throughout the pandemic.
Avanti has provided $2 per hour pay raise increases for all employees who interact with residents on the front line, Alford said. In front of the company's Towne Lake center, a large display has been put up that reads, "Thank you heroes."
"Our people come first because without our people, we can’t care for residents," Alford said. "We need our people healthy. We need our people happy and knowing they are appreciated."
Duran said she is grateful for the hours and hard work Sundance staff has put in.
"We have so many directors here that have the heart and willingness to jump in where needed," she said. "It has really just pulled everybody together a lot."