Assisted living communities continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic by deploying the same limitations on visitors and other screening and infection control practices seen in skilled nursing facilities, but Scott Tittle, executive director of the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL), says operators need access to testing and supplies to maintain high-quality resident care.

“The story is no different for our providers. There is not adequate access to PPE and testing in assisted living,” he tells Provider.

PPE refers to the personal protective equipment staff inside assisted living communities need to wear to prevent infections during the pandemic, including masks, gowns, and other supplies.

As for the issue of testing, Tittle says new data from the American Health Care Association (AHCA)/NCAL said the combined cost for COVID-19 testing of every resident and staff of assisted living communities in addition to nursing facilities would tally $672 million nationwide. For assisted living alone, the cost to do such testing would amount to $232 million.

AHCA/NCAL supports testing every resident and staff of skilled nursing facilities and assisted living communities, but ongoing testing carries unsustainable costs without continued support from federal and state governments, he says.

“With seniors among those most susceptible to the virus, the assisted living profession, in particular, is facing historic challenges when it comes to our most sacred charge—the health and safety of our residents,” Tittle says.

“Unfortunately, shortages of testing and PPE continue to be a challenge nationwide, and because assisted living communities are not medical facilities, they have not been prioritized for testing or supplies. We encourage our elected leaders to prioritize our most vulnerable and those who care for them in all long term care settings.”

Moving forward, he says, there is no doubt that fighting the pandemic has been “incredibly challenging” for operators. “The amount of resources that assisted living operators are dedicating to this crisis is immense. They have had to purchase high-priced PPE at unanticipated volume, adapt their operations for more one-on-one care to keep residents protected from spread, and offer ‘hero pay’ to caregivers as well as hire additional staff,” Tittle says.

In addition to the financial strain of operating buildings right now under tight visitation rules and precautions to prevent virus spread, AHCA/NCAL is very concerned about litigation issues.

“You think about the need for seeking immediate protection at the state and federal level from misguided lawsuits,” Tittle adds. “We understand that loved ones are grieving and looking for answers, but this is an unprecedented public health crisis, and caregivers are doing everything they can with limited resources and the information they have. Providers or individual staff members who were following government guidance should not be held responsible for their good faith efforts during this once-in-a-generation pandemic.”

Since the start of the current crisis, Tittle says assisted living has been on the frontlines working to manage, control, and eliminate the virus from buildings all across the country and will remain vigilant even as states gradually loosen lockdown protocols in the coming weeks and months.

“I think as we move forward, one thing that needs to be shared is this thought we’re not going back to the same normal that we were before. That’s acutely true in long term care. I know other business lines are very anxious to open up and have customers, but we are uniquely positioned in how this virus attacks and impacts the most vulnerable of our population.”

Tittle says assisted living, from owners to staff in the buildings, are doing everything that they can to persevere over the coronavirus, and “there are incredibly heroic stories about how staff are taking on double shifts or they’re actually moving into facilities and staying there overnight to help fight the battle.”

What about the future? Tittle says people looking at assisted living communities as a place to call home need to look beyond the headlines and explore the options themselves, as best as possible.

“I think the best thing people can do is to evaluate the amount of spread in their surrounding community and contact the facility directly to learn what’s going on inside the building and how they’re adapting to protect residents,” he says.

And, some facts about life inside assisted living communities play to the new normal that has taken hold with the virus, Tittle notes.

“Assisted living by its nature sees most residents in individual rooms, so that can help reduce spread already,” he says. “I know our operators are doing everything they can to be sure they are providing environments that are safe not only for residents and families but for their employees.”​