As the death toll grew at a Washington state nursing home, where dozens of staff and residents had fallen ill with COVID-19, Justine Vogel followed the horrific news in disbelief.
Life Care Center of Kirkland, Wash., was one of the first long-term care facilities in the country to face a coronavirus outbreak, which reportedly resulted in 37 deaths.
It was a tragedy Vogel and others committed to protecting the most vulnerable population did not want to see repeated.
“Our process went from disbelief to how do we keep that from happening here, to how do we contain it when it comes, because you know it’s coming for you?” said Vogel, chief executive officer of the RiverWoods Group.
“That’s what we’ve been saying to our residents for a while. Math would suggest that we will have some cases, and you just have to be prepared, and I feel like we are. We are doing everything we can. It’s scary to our staff, it’s scary to our residents, but we’re in it together,”
RiverWoods Group operates RiverWoods Exeter, Birch Hill in Manchester and Riverwoods Durham, all of which are continuing care retirement communities that offer independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing.
Like other long-term care facilities, RiverWoods took steps to prevent the spread of the virus by prohibiting visitors in March and requiring its mask-wearing workers to be checked for fever and other symptoms at a drive-through checkpoint before being allowed to work their shifts.
In recent days, the focus has shifted to testing in an effort to identify and isolate anyone who could be spreading the virus.
“We’ve been several days ahead of the guidance on absolutely everything. I’m proud of what we’ve done, but for organizations that don’t have access to testing or aren’t doing it, it’s perplexing. I really applaud what the governor is doing in terms of encouraging organizations to get tested and they need to do it again and again and again. It’s the only way to keep it into a contained environment,” Vogel said.
Realizing the need to test workers and residents as soon as possible, RiverWoods reached out to Convenient MD to work out a plan to begin testing on April 15.
The date was pushed back a few days after Gov. Chris Sununu announced on April 14 that the state was partnering with Convenient MD to test workers at long-term care facilities in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, which have accounted for approximately 70% of the state’s infections.
RiverWoods began mandatory testing on April 17 and finished on April 20. Vogel said its entire staff of about 650 active employees and all of its 200 health care residents have been tested; independent living residents have not yet been tested.
“Not all facilities did that, but I really think you need to have everybody tested. If you have everybody tested then you have a cohort. You have an opportunity to know,” she said.
RiverWoods’ Exeter and Durham campuses found no positive cases.
Approximately 130 staff and 60 residents at Birch Hill in Manchester were tested. Before the testing, Vogel said three employees who were symptomatic were no longer working.
The round of testing revealed four workers who were positive for COVID-19 but were asymptomatic. In addition, seven residents also tested positive, six of whom were asymptomatic and one who had mild symptoms.
“If we didn’t know about these four asymptomatic staff members or we didn’t know about the residents, it would have lit up the place. From my perspective it’s a huge success. What I keep saying to our residents and our team is knowing is better than not knowing and we have to know as soon as we can and as often as we can. We need to find a way to retest. I’m not sure how we’re going to get that done, but we’re going to keep at it and it has to be the whole cohort. We have to be able to do it for everybody,” Vogel said.
At RiverWoods, half of the testing is being paid for by insurance and the other half by the state.
Vogel said she hopes more testing will become available and that communities will take advantage of it if and when that happens.
Meanwhile, residents are finding ways to pass the time as they hope for a quick end to the pandemic. They have teamed up to make hundreds of masks and are now working on gowns to be used as personal protective equipment for staff.
“Talk about a life of purpose,” Vogel said.
Vogel also praised the nurses and aides in long-term care communities who are working under conditions that they never anticipated.
“For all of us it’s our first pandemic, I think. For me, the mindset is, these folks are pretty remarkable humans and they are committed to residents, they are committed to their teammates, and we’re so proud of them,” she said.