​With much of the population vaccinated and new medicines advancing the treatment of COVID-19, senior living administrators may naturally find themselves turning their focus from infection prevention to the countless other pressing issues of the day.

Jean FortgangBut as the continual ebb and flow of the pandemic has shown, now is not the time to let our guards fall with our masks.

Instead, administrators should take advantage of lessons learned and turn what have become widely accepted COVID-19 prevention protocols into long-term plans that maintain simple, everyday controls for keeping residents healthy and in their communities.

Assisted living communities have always faced unique challenges in infection prevention because of their business model, which focuses on independent living and social engagement. That means residents often come and go as they please and interact frequently with people well beyond their senior living community.

This makes it much harder to monitor for outbreaks of everything from COVID-19 to colds, flu, and other common viruses that often send residents to the emergency room.

That’s why it is so important for senior communities to implement proactive infection prevention plans that build on the many—often simple—practices that communities have implemented over the past two years in response to COVID-19.

For workers, there are several simple steps communities can build into their long-term plans:

  • Make infection control part of the employee onboarding process.
  • Educate and build into employee literature information regarding the importance of staying home if not feeling well.
  • Emphasize the need to use soap and water whenever possible, not just sanitizing gels.
  • Mandate masks and clean gloves for staff when dealing with residents (particularly in memory care) who aren’t feeling well.

Effective infection prevention also involves staying alert and responding to new and ongoing threats. That means monitoring and engaging with staff and visitors:

  • Take employee and visitor temperatures on arrival during flu or other outbreaks.
  • Remind residents to stay in and mask if they are not feeling well.
  • Post signage for staff, residents, and visitors about basic cleanliness.
  • Alert residents and families when there are community or regional outbreaks.
  • Send occasional reminders to residents and their families about basic infection prevention protocols.

Senior communities can also tap outside experts and partners to help with staff education and prevention protocols—both on transmissible and other common infections that often send resident to the emergency room.

For instance, we recently did a big educational push with member communities on urinary tract infections (UTIs). A lot of times, people think they have a UTI. But maybe they just need to drink more water. Or maybe they need some assistance with hygiene.

Senior living centers can also partner with experts from their local communities to host wellness events for residents and their families that include a session on basic steps and the importance of infection prevention.

Early detection and awareness is key. If everyone on the team is educated, involved, and working together, we can slow the spread of the myriad of common infections among senior living residents through proactive planning.

Hopefully, these plans will never be needed for another pandemic. But following these simple steps can go a long way toward building a community culture focused on keeping residents, their families, and staff happy and healthy.

Jean Fortgang, NP-C, ACHPN, is the associate director of the Optum care model and United HealthCare® Assisted Living Plan and serves as director of the Assisted Living and Patient Connect programs with Optum. Fortgang has 23 years of clinical leadership with Optum.