When the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading throughout the United States in March, older adults were deemed more susceptible, and nursing homes and assisted-living facilities immediately came up with protective measures for their communities.
Non-essential visitors were restricted from entering the facilities, group activities and dining-hall meals were canceled, resident outings were stopped, residents were issued masks and encouraged to stay in their apartments as much as possible, and staff members were trained on new protocols.
Facilities have been following guidelines issued by the state of Florida and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, such as keeping residents six feet apart from each another, reiterating frequent hand washing, taking daily temperatures and engaging in regular screening for COVID-19.
Officials educated their teams, residents and families on the new practices and have kept everyone involved up to date on changes.
Many put additional protocols into place in an effort to minimize the spread of the virus.
“To our knowledge, Sonata Senior Living (was) among the first provider in the state to proactively, and at its own cost, contract with vendors to test 100 percent of its staff and residents,” said Shelley Esden, chief operating office of Sonata Senior Living, which operates Sonata West and Serenades in Winter Garden.
“This (was) happening despite the fact that there have been zero reports of any resident or staff member exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19 and with residents and staff following applicable guidelines such as staff members and residents having their temperatures taken multiple times throughout the day to monitor for any symptoms,” Esden said.
“Ultimately, knowing which residents and staff members might be infected was a crucial piece of information necessary to better protect their larger population,” she said.
To combat the spread of the virus, the Florida Department of Health issued an emergency order prohibiting visitation to nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other long-term care facilities except during compassionate-care situations or for the purposes of health care or legal services. The CDC issued the same restrictions and recommended restriction of all volunteers and non-essential healthcare personnel, especially those who care for residents in multiple facilities.
“I am very proud of the community’s ability to execute proactive testing and implement all necessary and CDC recommended precautions to mitigate the spread of this virus,” Esden said.
Early access to testing kept the virus from spreading in the facility, said Maria Oliva, chief operating officer of Pathway to Living, which owns and manages Azpira at Windermere.
“With a significant shortage of tests all around, early on, we were really diligent in trying to figure out how can we do that, how can we access this resource,” Oliva said. “We leveraged relationships, local labs, and we were able to forge a relationship with a private lab that we contract with to do testing on our team members and our residents. We’ve been doing testing since the beginning or middle of April.
“I think that’s been critical and crucial to keeping our community COVID-free,” she said.
Azpira was able to obtain sanitizer and personal protection equipment at the beginning of March, she said, which minimized any potential spread.
“We took on an approach early on — how to impact our teams and how to impact our families,” she said.
Like most assisted-living facilities, Azpira found a way to keep its residents engaging in activities. One way is having them create individual projects that are all parts of something bigger.
“If a resident is making an art piece, it’s not just for that resident — but it becomes part of a much larger project,” Oliva said. “It’s purposeful.”
Residents have opportunities to plant seeds in the Victory Garden or get involved in virtual learning, too. They can share their poetry, reminiscences and sense of humor with other residents so they don’t feel so isolated.
On June 16, Gov. DeSantis issued a new executive order requiring all staff working in health communities … get tested every two weeks effective July 7.
“Those communities and health care settings who have been doing this all along, like Sonata West and Serenades West Orange, are ahead of the game and have already identified potential asymptomatic carriers, quarantined them and prevented outbreaks,” Esden said. “They have been COVID free for weeks and must simply maintain the status quo.”
To keep families in touch with their loved ones, Sonata Safe Connect appointments can be made for a family-window connection or a video chat. An air-conditioned visitation tent for families is being set up.
At Inspired Living at Ocoee, team members are working hard to protect residents and associates while, at the same time, understanding what their needs are during the pandemic isolation.
“It will take years to understand the impact of restricted visitation on the mental and physical well-being of senior living residents,” the Ocoee facility’s website said.
Staff at the company’s St. Petersburg facility came up with an idea that allows residents to safely experience the comforting feeling of touch. The team built the company’s first hug booth, a combination of a plastic sheet and long gloves that gives families the opportunity to embrace without fear of spreading the virus.
As the country continues to reopen, many facilities, including Inspired Living, have been examining ways to give residents chances to interact with each other from a distance until Phase 3 can be initiated in the state. They are adding flexible dining options, organizing masked parades and window visits, and offering creativity carts and daily activity sheets.
Until Phase 3 is initiated, facilities are dedicated continuing their high standard of protection for residents.
“We remain cautiously optimistic as we work vigilantly to contribute to stop the spread so that we can open our communities and celebrate with our friends and family in the very near future,” Inspired Living officials said.
“We’ll continue with infection control,” Oliva said. “We’ll continue to do group programs, small group programing with social distancing. We’re going to have the residents be able to eat in the dining venues with social distancing. we’re looking at our dining program with more disposable, safer sanitation. We’ve developed all those protocols and programs, and as soon as we get the green light we will move forward with those. We have a reopen recovery plan.”
The state of Florida announced its detailed three-phase reopening plan at the end of April, and senior communities were told they can again welcome visitors in the third phase. The date of this phase has not been determined.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.