Scott Tittle, executive director, National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL), spoke to Provider recently about the ongoing pandemic and its impact on life inside assisted living communities among residents and staff, as well as the ongoing effort to get more federal assistance to stem what is now another rising tide of COVID-19 cases across the nation.

After a successful October for NCAL in which the association held its annual NCAL Day during the American Health Care Association/NCAL convention, Tittle said the focus there showed how the coronavirus remains the top priority in assisted living.

Tittle noted that the 14th annual NCAL Day featured sessions, done on a virtual basis, to help providers effectively manage and prepare for COVID and to make, as he says, “life as normal as possible” for residents and their families.

“As states open up, there will be visitation even in colder temperatures. And, I think this makes it even more important to address topics that were addressed at the convention, which included how to improve communications and customer service during COVID with families and other caregivers,” Tittle says.

NCAL also offered education sessions on affordable assisted living, which remains a critical concern across the country for providers searching for ways to meet the requirements of operating a community but also in a way that is economically viable for residents.

As for the COVID battle, he says assisted living operators are learning to adjust as “best as they can and in ways they did not anticipate.” Tittle says there are of course differences between what constitutes a skilled nursing facility and an assisted living community, but that has not mattered to the coronavirus.

“Assisted living, like skilled nursing, has really been fighting since day one like everyone else,” he says. “Resident classifications are similar to those in skilled nursing, with ages and acuity a little lower, but our residents do have health care needs, of course.”

Despite having the same needs to fight the virus, Tittle says, “Quite honestly, assisted living has largely been left out of the discussion at the national level for support and funding.” The federal government did allocate some funds in September, and in doing so acknowledged the intense work being done in assisted living buildings to recalibrate living arrangements to battle against infections, but more is required.

“Providers have taken the needed steps like moving to noncommunal dining, implementing visitor restrictions, and addressing all sorts of things like how residents enter and leave buildings and other retrofits to ensure the safety for all, including staff,” he says.

The added cost of having to use voluminous amounts of personal protective equipment has also been a strain on the resources and bottom line. In addition, Tittle says the workforce challenges, like those in nursing homes, is acute given the stress and strain of maintaining daily operations while battling to keep infections out of buildings.

“This has been a long road for assisted living, and I think operators have been resilient and creative in finding new ways to resolve problems for residents,” he says.

In looking ahead, Tittle says NCAL will continue to advocate for more funding for assisted living when it comes to the dollars made available for health care providers and the pandemic. Even though states regulate assisted living, the work to get federal funding for operators to protect residents and staff does not conflict with the NCAL mission to maintain state control of the industry.

“I have heard some questions like that recently, and really it is all about our national board early on making a determination that the most important priority was to ensure operators had what they needed to save lives,” he says.

“We have been advocating for federal stimulus as a result. As for regulation, we believe states are the best incubators for needed regulation. This virus does not discriminate between people and how they are regulated. So, we separate the two matters and continue to believe a one-size-fits-all regulation at the federal level is not good for residents or operators of assisted living.”