By Jason J. Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
The news that a deadly virus was rapidly spreading in China seemed daunting enough, but the fact that the first reports of it in the United States was in the Seattle area was of deep concern. When reports surfaced that COVID-19 was starting to affect people in assisted living facilities, it hit close to home since my mother lives in one. It became a reality when I learned my mother had contracted the virus from a health care worker.
COVID-19 was an unknown to many health care providers at the beginning of the pandemic in early March. With so many unknowns, including how the virus was spread, what precautions to take, and how to keep people safe, there was a panic that hit many people and the thought of contracting the virus came with anxiety.
My mother resides in a local assisted living facility. In early March, I received a phone call stating that the specific facility she lived in had a positive test for COVID-19. The news did not come directly from the assisted living facility but someone within the corporate structure in Southern California. As a result, nothing specific could be addressed as to the individual that tested positive and whether the community would be tested. You may recall in the spring that testing was scarce and the protocol for those who received tests were limited. I was informed that only if you exhibited flu-like symptoms, you would be issued a test to confirm a positive test.
The news that the Life Care Center of Kirkland Nursing Home was the first COVID-19 epicenter brought a growing concern among residents, their families, and health care workers about the virus, its spread, and the potential outcome if you contracted the disease. Residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities make up more than a quarter of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths.
In April, I received word that my mother would be tested for COVID-19 and would not learn of the results for two days. When I received word, it was from a nurse at the facility who did not inform me right away out of the test results and when it was revealed that she tested positive, I was not given any further information on how they would treat her or if she needed to be treated. The good news is that she had none of the symptoms that were described by many that came down with the virus. But the fear of the unknown and the inability to see her in person created even more anxiety. She was placed into isolation for two weeks, which meant she had to stay in her room and would have meals there while a member of the staff checked on her.
I did receive reassurance from the facility and the protocol that was in place to ensure that she would remain safe and would report any changes in health where she might need more medical attention. The belief was that she may have been exposed to COVID-19 from a health care worker that also worked at another facility. While protocols were immediately put in place regarding workers to ensure that they were healthy and free of COVID-19 symptoms, asymptomatic (presenting no symptoms) individuals still could carry the virus and expose others.
From a personal perspective, the worst-case scenario ran through my head about the coronavirus. News reports revealed that the elderly were susceptible to COVID-19 which could lead to death.
Fortunately for my mother, she was fine after her time in isolation and tested negative for COVID-19 after her two weeks away from others. Still, as a family member, it was hard to deal with all the waiting. The old saying, “no news is good news,” was embraced because if we didn’t hear any news about her, nothing was going wrong. But in June, I received word that she was possibly exposed again to COVID-19 as another health care worker tested positive.
While that episode did not produce another positive test, it does highlight one of the issues with the spread of COVID-19 among assisted living and nursing homes. Health care workers in need of supporting themselves are working at multiple facilities in order to make ends meet. However, this is one of the ways that allow the virus to spread.
In March, the uncertainty of testing and the fluid guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and county Health Department proved to be frustrating for many family members that had family living with other residents at an assisted living facility or nursing home. What caused even more concern was the stay-at-home order from Gov. Jay Inslee in mid-March, which precluded people from moving around. Even before the order from the governor, assisted living facilities and nursing homes forbade visitors over concerns of the virus spreading to visitors or from visitors.
One assisted living facility’s response, “We took extraordinary measures,” said Aegis Living CEO Dwayne Clark of his organization’s response to the outbreak.
Aegis Living owns and operates 17 assisted living facilities in Western Washington. The Aegis Gardens Living facility in Newcastle has many Chinese residents. Clark notes that the Aegis Gardens have had no COVID-19 positive tests as of the beginning of October.
Aegis Living had its first case of COVID-19 when a health care worker went home with flu-like symptoms on Feb. 28 at its Marymoor facility in Redmond.
At that point, it began to limit non-essential visits in all its Western Washington locations. According to Clark, Aegis set up a “war room” which focused on ways the company would address the situation from all aspects. This included communications both within the organization and to the residents and families of those living at an Aegis Living facility, research on COVID-19, and how to effectively stop the spread of the virus.
Clark stated that Aegis communicated on a daily basis with residents and families to inform them of the latest updates at the beginning of the pandemic.
In June, Aegis formed the Coronavirus Advisory Council, which was comprised of physicians and medical experts including an emergency room physician and gerontologist, a physician working on a vaccine, a naturopath doctor that looks to alternative means to treating COVID-19, a doctor specializing in geriatrics, and a physician from China to provide input as to what worked in China. Aegis works with the Advisory Council on a daily to weekly basis. A part of the function is to assist in teaching Aegis and other senior health care companies on how the virus travels, how it is evolving, and where it may be headed next.
As for working with, around, and near people with COVID-19, Clark ensured that his employees felt safe where they worked. He heard of other facilities that had workers not show up due to worries that they may become infected.
“I never heard that in my career,” Clark added, “We never had a shortage of staff.” He touted the fact that they have had ample Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for the staff since the beginning. Even with supply prices rising, he thought of his staff before prices. He also noted that Aegis facilities started a task force to ensure there was appropriate child care for health care workers and offered “meals to go” for families for a subsidized price of only $1.
“I think it goes beyond telling them how the virus works,” said Clark of how he addressed staff. “They are overwhelmed with information.” He has led Zoom meditation sessions for employees to take part. He’s also retained a psychiatrist as he recognizes the mental aspect of how COVID-19 has affected all aspects of life for many that work for Aegis.
“If you have people with anxiety, they can’t care for people. You’ve got to help with that.”
Even through the pandemic, residents at the Aegis Newcastle facility feel safe.
“The Aegis Newcastle team has done a great job! We are proud to be in a community with zero cases,” said Annie Wang, resident along with her husband since July 2019. “My husband and I talk with our daughters frequently and we always mention how great it is to be safe here with Aegis.”
“I’ve never seen so many letters of support, emails, telephone calls in the last 7-8 months,” said Clark of the outpouring of support by family members of residents. “We’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude.”
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.