With reports of COVID-19 spreading in senior living centers across the state, long-term care facilities in Northern Virginia are ramping up efforts to secure much-needed personal protective equipment and trying to provide open communication while addressing coronavirus concerns.

On Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam announced the state would be expanding testing criteria, or the list of reasons for why someone can obtain a COVID-19 test while supplies remain limited, to include anyone entering a long term care facility. And he said that both Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia would be assisting the state’s health department in the effort to screen people entering senior living facilities. 

According to state numbers, Northern Virginia long-term care centers have seen 34 outbreaks (defined by the state as having two or more confirmed cases): 19 in the Fairfax health district,  seven in Loudoun, five in Arlington, two in Alexandria and one in Prince William. 

Many facilities, like Birmingham Green in Manassas, have been doing temperature checks prior to entry for weeks. But for the assisted living and nursing home with about 300 residents, that hasn’t kept the virus from finding its way inside. Last week, the facility announced that two employees had tested positive for COVID-19. Over the weekend, an 80-year-old resident revealed that she was in the hospital with the virus. 

Thomas Dodson, Birmingham Green’s vice president, declined to speak specifically about the outbreak at the facility, but told InsideNoVa that while the center is trying to keep lines of communication open with residents and their families, staff is also trying to limit speculation and rumors. 

“People like to talk, they do, and that’s part of the thing you try to do, is strike up that relationship and give people an opportunity to talk in a productive way,” Dodson said. 

It’s a frightening situation for seniors hearing news of climbing death tolls inside senior living centers, Dodson said. According to a New York Times analysis, more than 3,800 COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been affiliated with long-term care facilities, including the deaths of 45 residents at the Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County outside Richmond. 

Of the state’s 117 outbreaks, 66 have been at long-term care facilities according to state reports. 

The anxiety among residents, Dodson said, is likely compounded by an inability to see family and friends from the outside world. The facility primarily serves low-income seniors and those with disabilities, and is using what technological resources it has to help seniors communicate with their loved ones. Residents have been asked to stay inside their rooms and wear masks, and Dodson said they have access to a number of computers to video chat with outsiders, as well as phone lines. 

The center also has a psychologist on staff to counsel residents.

“We pay attention to people who might be in a state of stress or just in need of somebody to talk to. We do have a psychologist that’s been wonderful for us, spending a lot of time working with folks trying to keep them happy,” Dodson said, “or as happy as they could be in this situation.”

For those outside the facility, CEO Denise Chadwick Wright is posting regular updates on the situation inside to the Birmingham Green website. 

In her Thursday message, Wright said staff was being fitted for N95 masks and that the facility would be receiving 1,200 surgical masks the next day. An additional order of face shields, N95 masks and hand sanitizer had also been placed. 

“The reality per public health sources is that additional cases will occur, however we have steady leadership across our campus with team members committed to putting forth our best infection control efforts to fight COVID-19,” Wright wrote. “We will contact you if your loved one is suspected of or diagnosed with COVID-19.”

According to Melissa Andrews, the President and CEO of LeadingAge Virginia, that’s exactly the kind of communication all long-term care centers should be engaging in. The association of 125 not-for-profit facilities (of which Birmingham Green is a member) has been advising facilities to be as transparent as they can. 

Per Virginia law, the state is prohibited from revealing specific institutions with cases as they’re classified as individuals. On Friday, Northam was asked about changing the law given the state of emergency, but he said it would be up to the General Assembly. But Andrews says that facilities should be self-reporting.

“Families are terrified and if they don’t hear from the communities where their loved ones live, that fear just grows,” Andrews said. “Tell the truth and overcommunicate. This is a disease that is invisible and highly-transmissible. But you can be reassuring residents that in the long-term care field that we’ve had infectious disease procedures forever. Explain to them how they’ve shored up those measures. Communication, communication, communication is really important.”

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