Coronavirus Impact: Bay Area assisted living communities want stimulus funding, better access to testing

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area senior living facilities are asking Congress and the president for help with the growing costs required to protect their staff and elderly residents during the COVID-19 outbreak. Some are questioning why hotels and airlines are getting stimulus money, but not the businesses that provide homes and care for tens of thousands of elderly people most at risk from the pandemic.

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"The most important thing is keeping our residents and staff safe," said Deborah Savoie, executive director of The Point at Rockridge, a senior living community in Oakland.

The Point offers assisted living and memory care. Its website boasts it has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, although Savoie conceded they have not been able to test all the staff and residents.

Like many assisted living facilities, The Point used to offer a rich social life with many activities and community dining. Now that social distancing is required the staff serves people individually in their rooms and takes carts with activities door to door.

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It is a much more expensive way to do business, especially when coupled constant intensive cleaning and the ongoing need for more personal protective equipment (PPE). "These are real costs that they are incurring every single day caring for these residents," said James Balda, executive director of Argentum, a national industry group that represents senior living communities.

"We are seeing our labor costs increase over 20%, supplies increasing over 100%, and we project the cost for the industry as a whole over the next 12 months could be anywhere from from $40 to $50 billion," Balda said.

The public often thinks of nursing homes and other types of senior housing as the same thing, but there are key differences.

Nursing homes are considered medical facilities and are funded largely by Medicare and Medi-Cal. But more elderly Californians actually live in what the state calls "long term residential care," which often includes assisted living and memory care.

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Those businesses range from small board and care homes to large senior communities with a variety of living options. They are not considered medical facilities, so generally do not get public funding. Instead they rely on residents' monthly fees, but there is growing worry that will not be enough to cover the continued extra costs of COVID-19.

"None of us anticipated how serious the COVID-19 virus would be and the impact it would have on seniors and our team members," explained Tom Berry, regional director for Sunrise Senior Living, which operates 17 senior living communities in the Bay Area with a range of care options.

"From our sanitation procedures, to following the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and public health on screening visitors and limiting visitation, and using masks when caring for the residents and other types of equipment, we've been really able to protect the overwhelming majority of our residents, but some have become sick," Berry said.

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Sunrise reports there have been COVID-19 cases at two of its Bay Area locations, but would not give much detail. State records show at least one death at Sunrise in Burlingame. Berry said they are seeing a big variation in testing from county to county.

"In some (Sunrise) buildings we have been able to get the testing done and some buildings we have not, so it is kind of a mixed bag when it comes to testing. Some communities get what they need, and some do not, based on the resources of county public health," Berry said.

A statement from Sunrise said what would really help "would be for the federal government (CDC) to develop a recommended, reliable testing strategy that informs decision making and provides for the assurances the public is demanding. And, make the associated resources easily available, especially when you think about manpower, cost, and processes that are required to administer and manage tests."

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The industry is urging residents and families of those in senior living to contact their senators and members of Congress to encourage support for senior living communities.

"You have seen restaurants get support. You have seen airlines get support. And yet our communities and the one million workers in our communities who are on the front lines every day dealing with this crisis really need to be considered for support moving forward," Balda said.

As many as 180,000 California seniors live in long term residential care. As of May 18, 2020 there have been 1,929 cases of COVID-19, with 272 deaths.



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