In January 2020, Erica Scott was doing the job that she loves as the Community Manager for Embrace Living Communities’ location GreenCastle of Mulford in Rockford, Illinois. As the manager of that community, Erica ensures the operations run smoothly and residents are taken care of. She is often the first to learn about news impacting the community. She was the first to learn about the Coronavirus outbreak.
“I happened to see a message from our organization’s leadership about a new virus that had just been confirmed in the U.S., but at that time, the CDC referred to it simply as flu-like,” says Erica. “Embrace Living Communities has strong processes in place already when it comes to flu season preparation, so there was little concern.”
But just weeks later, the small concern quickly turned to action when the U.S. government declared a public health emergency, and COVID-19 became a global pandemic. Trends showed that the virus was especially dangerous to seniors. Erica Scott and the other 33 Embrace Living Communities managers worked quickly with organization leadership to respond.
Creating a plan and communications
Back at Embrace Living Communities’ home office, Greg Watson, Director of Housing Operations, was at a managers’ meeting, where an infectious disease expert was presenting about this new virus. “We knew that we needed to start putting a plan and new protocols in place to keep residents and staff safe at our many communities,” says Greg.
The leadership team started to meet frequently to stay on top of the quickly evolving updates that the CDC and HUD were sending out daily. Those messages were interpreted for the organization’s specific needs and communicated out to community managers who could implement the new protocols locally. Almost immediately, community areas at each location were shut down, and social programs were paused. Messages were sent to residents to ensure their understanding of these changes and of the virus’ risks and dangers.
“We were following CDC and HUD guidelines and taking their recommendations without being overly restrictive to our residents who enjoy an independent living environment,” explains Greg. “The good news is that our residents fully understood what was going on and that they were more vulnerable to the virus.”
“It was also important that the messages sent were from a centralized location and as one strong voice,” says Ed Havlovic, Director of Plant Operations. “Leadership came together, made decisions quickly and updated our teams as needed. By doing it this way, it reduced any confusion our teams might have about what they needed to do locally.”
“Leadership didn’t wait to educate us,” says Erica. “They started communicating early and often, which was great. We needed that guidance and support throughout.”
Local protocols and supplies become a priority
Other processes were also changed to lower the risk of spreading the virus within communities. “Any recertifications or lease signings needed to be done differently from the face-to-face interaction we had previously,” says Greg. “We knew our staff had to go to public places at times, and we didn’t want to risk them bringing the virus into the communities, so we put protocols in place to deliver documents under residents’ doors and have them bring them back to a drop-box location.”
Cleaning processes also focused heavily on high-traffic areas, door knobs and elevator buttons — priorities that will remain in place long after COVID-19 is gone.
In addition, staff members used flexible scheduling. With less activities taking place in communities, employees could work from home half the week and be onsite, wearing their masks, for the other 20 hours of the week.
The other challenge that they quickly had to solve was the need for supplies at each location. “The good news is that our locations each source supplies through different vendors,” states Ed. “These multiple relationships allowed us to tap into the various partners when supplies were needed at a specific location. Each of our community managers really stepped up to help their peers, whether it was masks, hand sanitizer or toiletry needs.”
Staying vigilant moving forward
The new protocols put in place early on remain in place today as the team continues to keep its staff and residents safe. “This is no time to let our guard down with the virus still out there and cases continuing to rise,” says Greg.
Cases within the communities remain low, and the few who did test positive were quickly isolated to ensure it did not spread further.
“Looking forward, we want to stay vigilant. That can be tough as fatigue sets in and people want to get back to normal,” says Ed. “But residents still understand the threat that remains out there.”
“The staff here put protocols in place to keep infections and risk as low as possible,” states Chief Executive Officer Ralph Gaines. “They did so while working hard to keep the spirits up of our residents. It is a testament to our mission, values and people. I couldn’t be more proud of the team’s dedication and success in handling the crisis, which they continue to do today. The people they care for are like extended family to them, and we want to do all we can to protect them and fulfill our promise of providing faith-based communities that enrich their living experience.”
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