Pictured: Townhomes at Providence Park on The Manor campus of Willow Valley Communities
(photo credit: Willow Valley Communities)

The COVID-19 virus has been especially lethal to older people, as exemplified by a tragic statistic revealed last week by Pennsylvania’s Department of Health. Of the state’s 700+ COVID-19 deaths, approximately 52 percent have been residents of nursing homes.

This is an especially challenging situation since many people who are infected with this virus show no symptoms. While many of the nation’s senior living communities are dealing with COVID-19 cases among their residents and staff, there thankfully are numerous exceptions. Some communities that moved swiftly and early with diligent infection prevention measures appear to be particularly effective at sparing their residents from this deadly virus. One of these is Willow Valley Communities.

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Early and decisive action

Willow Valley Communities (WVC) is a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, or life plan community) in Willow Street, Pennsylvania, between Lancaster and Philadelphia. One of our blog followers is a resident of WVC, and because she was so impressed with the COVID-19 protocols they have enacted, she wrote to me to share them.

Willow Valley is comprised of two adjacent campuses — The Manor and The Lakes. Each includes a variety of independent living residence options, from apartments to villas and townhomes, as well as an onsite healthcare facility for residents who require a higher level of care. The combined 210-acre campus includes courtyards, walking paths, ponds, and even a natural wetlands area.

Willow Valley took early and swift action to prevent the COVID-19 virus from entering their community. WVC has created a COVID-19 webpage, which is regularly updated, where they share with residents, families, employees, and the public the details of what they are doing to keep their community safe, as well as educational resources. Here are some of the measures they have enacted over the past two months:

COVID-19 response teamOne of WVC’s first steps was to form a special COVID-19 response team, which includes members of leadership, its medical director, and the infection control committee, with advisement from the nearby hospital. The team meets daily to discuss policies, best practices, and proactive measures that should be taken to help mitigate risk to the community.

Resident and staff information and education: Next, they began gathering information from residents and employees about recent travel, contact with people who travelled to hot spots, and any symptoms being experienced. WVC also set about educating both residents and employees about the virus and prevention measures like social distancing. The response team added handwashing instruction signage throughout the community, as well as hand sanitizer in dining areas. All employees also were reeducated on protocols for proper handwashing techniques, and proper use of gloves and other PPE equipment.

Increased cleaning: WVC implemented increased housekeeping measures and frequency in all public areas, including wiping down the inside of their buses/vans each day. They increased the frequency of sanitizing surfaces and switching out communal utensils in dining areas. They also did additional cleaning and wiping down of all fitness areas. (You’ll read later about the eventual closing of these amenities.)

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Restricting guests: Early on, WVC monitored visitors to their community at sign-in to check for recent travel and symptoms, but soon thereafter, WVC began asking residents to limit outside guests. Now, outside guests are prohibited altogether. Even independent-living spouses of people in the assisted living, memory care, and nursing care units are not allowed to visit their partner. (As a side note, I know this particular restriction is difficult on both spouses, but it is truly crucial for the safety of those highly vulnerable nursing care residents.)

24/7 non-resident screenings: Beginning on March 23, all non-residents (including employees, vendors, and contractors) with access to WVC buildings were screened daily at one of two designated 24/7 checkpoints before being permitted to enter. This screening includes a series of questions and a temperature check.

Limiting residents’ travel off-campus: Similarly, the community initially encouraged residents to limit their travel outside of the community when possible. They then moved to requiring any resident who left campus under certain circumstances to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. Residents who would like to vote in Pennsylvania’s upcoming primary are encouraged to request an absentee ballot.

Resident screenings: WVC has now implemented a screening requirement policy for any resident leaving WVC property for any reason without exception. It requires that upon return to campus, all cars are routed through a screening station, where a masked employee will come to the car and take a forehead temperature utilizing an infrared thermometer and ask screening questions of the driver and passengers.

Masks for all residents: WVC took the initiative to produce and distribute a cloth mask to every resident to wear when outside of their residence. Many of these masks were crafted by WVC’s own quilters’ group, which created over 500 masks.

Eliminating groups: The community has cancelled all group events and activities, reminding residents that they should not eat or socialize in-person with neighbors.

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Dining and grocery services: WVC initially ended all sit-down dining, switching to “to-go” orders only. They then closed all dining venues and transitioned to meal delivery for all residents. They also are providing grocery delivery services for residents.

Communications: In addition to their dedicated COVID-19 website and the community’s mobile phone app, WVC also is creating other communication channels to keep their residents informed. Management is creating a communique, which is sent to residents every few days with the latest COVID-19 news and updates. Beginning this week, they are even doing a daily live broadcast on the community’s campus TV station with current COVID-19 news, data, updates, and changes to policies and procedures.

Transparency: Residents and loved ones can submit their anonymous questions online, which are addressed during the daily TV broadcast’s Q&A portion. On the COVID-19 website, there is also a comprehensive running list of all questions that have been submitted and the community’s response.

Team Member Emergency Fund: Residents at WVC are clearly grateful for the hard work of the community’s staff, as evidenced by the Team Member Emergency Fund they requested be created. The fund is designed to provide relief payments to employees who have suffered financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 and future crises. To date, the fund has received 360 checks totaling $93,181. Employees in need can submit an application to Human Resources, which is then reviewed by a virtual committee. The first relief payments will be issued from the fund this week.

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A measure of COVID-19 prevention success

While some are disruptive, all of these measures by WVC are aimed at keeping residents safe and healthy. And their efforts are paying off. As of this posting, only one WVC resident has tested positive for COVID-19. This independent living resident was immediately isolated and COVID-19 safety protocols, including contact tracing, were enacted. One employee also has tested positive, but they have not been at work for more than the 14-day period of risk. Following contact tracing protocols, WVC determined that no residents or other employees had direct close contact with the COVID-19 positive employee while contagious.

I can’t think of a better model for how a CCRC would deal with COVID-19 and prevent an outbreak on their campus. WVC is being proactive, thorough, and extremely transparent. In fact, I have been in communication with a resident of WVC who seems both impressed and grateful for the measures put in place by her community’s management.

It is a difficult and trying period for our nation, but CCRCs like Willow Valley Communities are going above and beyond to care for their residents and keep them safe.

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