In February of 2020, it became apparent that Covia needed to find a new way to respond to the emerging threat of COVID-19.
“We had existing emergency preparedness and disaster plans, but really with only a token reference to ‘emerging infectious diseases’,” says Grant Edelstone, Senior Director of Risk Management. “We didn’t have any pandemic policy or playbook. Even the lessons learned from the swine flu preparation were mostly forgotten, with expired respirators and fit testing kits stored away in an unused closet. So we had to accept the fact that a pandemic was happening and we had to rapidly change our practices to prevent and mitigate outbreaks.”
With communities and programs located in multiple locations, and the prospect of the Support Services office employees working remotely, representatives from all areas of Covia’s operations began to meet as a COVID-19 Task Force to coordinate Covia’s response. With nine members, drawing from operational and clinical functions, Life Plan Communities, Affordable Communities, and Community Services, the Task Force allowed Covia to understand the impact of the pandemic from all directions.
“The work of the task force was crucial in keeping the residents and employees safe during this pandemic. It allowed us to all share in ‘drinking from the fire hose’ and to dissect and process the information so that we all understood how it affected the organization not just our individual areas,” says Prab Brinton, VP of Human Resources. “This allowed us to provide cohesive solutions to our communities at large.” At first, the Task Force met by Zoom four days a week as Covia learned to extent of the changes that needed to be put into place. Eventually, the Task Force was able to meet three days a week, and now is down to twice a week.
Cynthia Shelby, Regional Quality and Care Nurse remembers “the endless hours and constant changes in the beginning, but my most fond memory is that the leaders decided to stockpile PPE and create the task force. I believe these two things afforded us favorable outcomes.”
Acquiring Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, at a time when resources were scarce – and the sources were sketchy – was one of the first hurdles the Task Force addressed. Chris Ichien, VP of Life Plan Operations, tracked down N95 masks being sold from a remote warehouse in Southern California when all other avenues seemed closed. To provide steady supplies, Covia purchased PPE on behalf of the whole organization, which was stockpiled at the now-closed Los Gatos Meadows campus and disbursed to all the communities as needed.
Many of Covia’s Community Services programs stepped up, adapting quickly to the restrictions of the pandemic and providing all-important social connections to people as the virus caused isolation. When Market Day had to shut down its produce markets in senior affordable housing and senior centers, it delivered produce as people learned to find new sources of food and fresh produce. Social Call, which had already created a phone visitation program, switched entirely to remote visitation, as well as inviting people to send personalized greeting cards to people throughout the United States. And Well Connected’s phone- and online-based program was well situated to provide support not only to Covia, but to many other organizations as well. Tracy Powell, VP of Community Services, says that the ability to be flexible and pivot is a skill that she will take with her, long after the pandemic is over.
Along with flexibility, the Task Force helped Covia to think about what risks might lie ahead. With an awareness that fire season was fast approaching, Ichien set up contracts with hotels outside the fire zone to allow people from Covia’s communities to evacuate to a safe locations, should the need arise. In September, that foresight made a difficult situation a little bit easier as Spring Lake Village and Friends House residents evacuated to a hotel near Sacramento.
Senior Director of Risk Management Grant Edelstone was a linchpin of the Task Force, providing updates on the vast array of new regulatory requirements that emerged during the pandemic. In a recent survey, one respondent said, “I think the company response was great in general; personally, the support of the Senior Director, Risk Manager and my building Administrator was outstanding to navigate the early challenges of the response.” With more than 100 Provider Information Notices (PINs) coming from the California Department of Social Services over the course of the year, having a source who could track the most recent requirements gave community administrators the assurance that they were doing the right thing. Likewise, “Knowing that our work advising others, saving them the time to have to look up and read and follow constantly changing information contributed to the work of our frontline heroes” is one of the things that Edelstone says has kept him going through the pandemic.
Keeping people informed was another key responsibility of the Task Force. Whether through meetings with clinical teams or housing administrators, or through the website or weekly written updates, the Task Force prioritized giving residents, employees, visitors, vendors, and families the information they needed to feel confident in Covia’s response. Laura Darling, VP of Communications and Spiritual Care, says, “I didn’t expect to write an update every week for over a year, but I am so glad that we have the record of how we responded to this crisis. It feels like an ongoing conversation that has helped us all get through this.” She especially remembers an email that came from the Russian speaking residents of Bethany Center, thanking the maintenance staff for their dedication. “If we hadn’t opened those lines of communication, I would never have known about that. As it is, there are so many unsung front-line heroes and many more stories to hear.”
Karim Sultan, VP of Affordable Housing, says that his work on the Task Force “has been some of the most gratifying work I have done since I have been with organization. I felt a strong duty to protect residents and staff and the task force allowed me to participate in a process that facilitated that.”
Ron Schaefer, Chief Operating Officer, reflects, “I knew this before, but what has been valuable to me is that we have incredibly capable, smart, and wise people on this Task Force and in our communities, and I have been humbled and delighted seeing everyone shine in bringing their hearts, hands, and minds to this work.”
“I am very impressed with Senior Management’s commitment to keeping the residents and employees safe,” says Brinton. “I am proud to be working for an organization that actively balances the needs of its employees and residents all while keeping the organization poised for financial viability well into the future.”
The members of Covia’s COVID-19 Task Force are:
- Ron Schaefer, Chief Operating Officer
- Prab Brinton, VP of HR
- Chris Dana, VP of IT
- Laura Darling, VP of Communications and Spiritual Care
- Grant Edelstone, Senior Director of Risk Management
- Christopher Ichien, VP of Life Plan Operations
- Tracy Powell, VP of Community Services
- Cynthia Shelby, Regional Quality and Care Nurse
- Karim Sultan, VP of Affordable Housing
As the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the healthcare staff at each Life Plan Community and at Support Services rose to the occasion and continued to do what they do best: provide excellent care to our residents. Covia has always had strong health care delivery and infection control procedures, but the pandemic has made the planning and training required to maintain safety more evident.
At Spring Lake Village, Jodi Arnheiter, RN and Director of Staff Development, and Sherry Taylor, RN and Director of Nursing, have led the local infection control response. Jodi, who has worked at Spring Lake Village for over 10 years, was trained by the Association for Professional Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) — the leading professional association for infection control specialists. The training includes epidemiology, microbiology, science-based infection prevention practices, and implementation of practices in a long-term care setting.
“We are so lucky to have Jodi on our staff. From the first day, she was providing daily guidance on what we had to do to be prepared,” reports SLV Wellness Director Diane Waltz. Jodi communicates frequently with the Sonoma County Public Health Department on any new data regarding the current situation, as well as reviewing the updates from CDC and the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine (CALTCM). Jodi’s colleagues praise her calm, reassuring presentation of the facts and actions that need to be taken.
In Oakland, Lisa Hiltbrand, the daughter of Helen Hiltbrand, a resident in the healthcare center at St. Paul’s Towers, expressed her gratitude for the staff, whose compassion and care for their residents was especially important during a time when family members had to stay at a distance. “Since the beginning of the restrictions due to the virus, their extreme dedication and professionalism have been exemplary. The nurses and staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to support my mother. Ranka and the other nurses have organized regular Zoom meetings for my siblings and me,” Lisa says. “It is such a relief to see our mother when we cannot be physically with her. These extra steps are even more spectacular as they’re taken in a time when the staff’s workload has been increased. I know they are taking extra time for interacting with residents due to the lack of visitors,” she says.
At Webster House Health Center, Executive Director Linda Hibbs shared her gratitude for her staff’s hard work: “I’m impressed with the dedication and compassion you have demonstrated to our residents, families, and staff. This has been a challenging time with many of you anxious about the COVID-19 virus implication and the economic future of family members. Thank you for your professionalism and willingness to be a team of heroes! The care you show for our residents makes Webster House such a great community.”
Organization-wide, the COVID-19 response is led by a task force of nine executive leaders representing Operations, Life Plan Communities, Affordable Communities, Clinical Care, Human Resources, IT, Community Services, and Communications. Grant Edelstone, Covia’s Senior Director of Risk Management, and Cynthia Shelby, RN and Regional Director of Quality and Care, are critical team members, providing guidance for local staff on best practices for infection control and compliance with local and state regulations.
As conditions changed rapidly, Grant’s support to track and implement changing mandates and rules was invaluable. St. Paul’s Towers Executive Director Mary Linde, who is also a nurse by background, says, “I am so grateful that Grant is on our team, especially right now with the onslaught of information coming from multiple regulatory agencies. Grant ensures that we all get the information and sends it to us with a concise recap. He also finds the information for us when we are scrambling to meet the demands of our situation. And he does all of this with patience and kindness.”
For the past three years, Cynthia Shelby has worked across Covia, providing support to the six health care centers at Covia Communities. She, along with other members of the Clinical Team, offers guidance on the complexities of skilled nursing, including regulatory requirements, preparing for surveys from state regulators, billing questions, staffing concerns, training, and even filling in for key roles as needed.
“A key part of our mission is the continuum of care and how the full team helps residents transition through changes,” says Covia President and CEO Kevin Gerber. “The continuum of care is also about the whole person — not just thinking about their physical needs, but all of their needs.”
Covia has been able to get staff the supplies they need, ordering personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks in larger quantities and distributing to the communities as needed. Shelby, as part of Covia’s COVID-19 Task Force, reports daily on the needs and concerns of the skilled nursing teams, as well as the creative solutions they are implementing — such as turning sections of the health care center into isolation areas should a COVID-19 positive resident need to be kept separate from others.
“We’re making history,” says Shelby. “We’re doing things we’ve never done before. We’re introducing lots of new technologies, new ways of doing things, new ways of communicating to our families. Everyone as a team comes together for that.”
*This article was originally posted in the Summer 2020 edition of Community Matters
Each year, Covia sends candidates to LeadingAge California’s EMERGE program to build and develop their capacity for leadership and to help them network with other leaders in the Aging Services field. This May, Rosa Torres, Human Resources Manager for Los Gatos Meadows, and Cammille Lo-Li, Regional Social Services Manager for Covia Affordable Communities, are graduating as members of the class of 2019, and Maggie Youssef, Health Care Administrator at St. Paul’s Towers, will join the class of 2020.
“EMERGE is a year-long program to help candidates reach their potential in their organization to successfully lead innovative programming within their organizations,” explains Jerry Brown, Senior Director of Covia Affordable Communities, who helped establish the statewide program and has served as a coach for the past four years.
Brown explains that EMERGE fellows “can be any level of employee. It doesn’t have to be a CEO. It can be a maintenance person or a nurse, which I think is the wonderful thing about it. The supervisor sees the value that you have as a leader – that you can be a leader, not necessarily in the current job you have, but for the organization in some way.”
Lo-li first heard about the program while working at another organization in 2011. “I got that opportunity back then when I was first on the job as a Resident Service Coordinator. But I put it on hold and things kept holding me back [from participating]. So I’m glad that as soon as I was employed by Covia, I got a call saying, ‘Hey, Cammille, we want you to participate.’”
Youssef explains, “I applied for the EMERGE program so that I can professionally grow as a leader, build long lasting professional relationships with other leaders from other organizations and network with other fellow EMERGE members.” For Youssef, “Although I’ve worked in the Long term Care industry the last 25 years, I believe that there is so much more to learn. It is an ever evolving industry. The EMERGE program can help me improve on the skills I already possess and develop other skills I need to become a better leader in the industry.”
Participants in the program meet in person four times a year, participating in site visits at LeadingAge California member communities. They read and discuss four books on leadership development, and participate in monthly team calls between sessions. Each participant also creates an Action Learning Plan, or ALP, to apply what they have learned and bring it back to their workplace.
“It’s a training to help you lead, but it’s not only that,” says Torres. “I feel that this year has helped me to understand people in all their diversity, how to deal with them, how to communicate, how to address employees properly.”
Torres’ ALP involved building a more inclusive culture in her community. “The first thing I did was instead of saying ‘Staff Meeting,’ I changed it to ‘Team Meeting.’ And you know, believe it or not, that Team word made a big difference for some employees. I had people from the Environmental Services department tell me that this was the first time that somebody saw them as part of a team.”
Lo-li is developing a social work mentorship program “by shadowing current employees in different positions, getting their interest in the aging services field.”
The ALPs are not just theoretical projects, but actually get carried out and have an impact on the participants’ organizations. A previous EMERGE fellow implemented Covia’s comprehensive, organization-wide online Accounts Payable system as her ALP.
In addition to what participants bring back to their organizations, “I got really good friends and I appreciate the training because of that,” says Torres. “You learn a lot of things about yourself, about your job, about the people around you.”
As a coach, Brown says, “I like hearing everybody’s personal stories. I like seeing the best practices when we go visit sites. There’s some really wonderful programs out there, innovative things. Covia has some of the most innovative programs within the whole membership of LeadingAge California. We should be very proud of that.”
“I’m really glad that Covia continues to support the program and that Cammille and Rosa both were able to get through the program this year and graduate, and I hope that they encourage others to do so too,” says Brown. “We have to remember that it’s not a cheap program. You are getting the support of your supervisor because you’re not at work. Other people have to fill in for you while you’re away. And so Covia’s really making an investment in your leadership, allowing this education. You’re being honored, I would say.”
“I wish that every employee, every colleague would get to attend, just to get the experience of it,” says Lo-li. “It’s an adventure ride.”
When Mary Linde, Executive Director of St. Paul’s Towers in Oakland, plans development programs for her senior leadership team, “I try to do things that aren’t just about reading and discussing a book,’” she says. In January that led her to bring her team to the LeadingAge California offices in Sacramento.
“It’s typically nurses and licensed administrators who go to the conferences,” Linde observes. “But as I look at my leadership, I see so much talent, and yet they don’t get out of the community and network, partly because they don’t know all the opportunities that exist, and also because they don’t realize they can. As part of our leadership training, I really wanted to connect our team to LeadingAge so that they knew, first of all, the available resources and; secondly, the networking pathways open to them; and finally, that Covia supports them serving outside of our community.”
Linde arranged for her team to travel to LeadingAge California’s Sacramento offices. “When we got there, the LeadingAge staff didn’t just show up,” she says. “They had gift bags for all of us. They had an agenda. They had a folder with handouts for us. They were so excited.”
LeadingAge California President and CEO Jeannee Parker Martin agrees. “Their morning visit gave us an opportunity to learn more about the needs of each team member from a provider perspective, and also an opportunity for them to learn more about the myriad policy, committee, educational and resource opportunities from LeadingAge California staff. It was exciting to have the full team take a day away to meet with us, and we look forward to engaging with them on committees and other activities ahead.”
Sheba Jenness, St. Paul’s Director of Human Resources, is one of the team with a deeper investment in the work of LeadingAge after offering to serve on a committee dedicated to HR issues. Jenness has worked in Aging Services for 10 years, but before going to the LeadingAge offices, she admits she knew practically nothing about the organization. “It was very abstract,” she says. “I knew it existed. I didn’t know how much they advocate on so many different levels. They’re really invested in trying to find different ways to make sure that California is serving older people in a caring, conscientious way.” As part of the HR Group, Jenness will be working with a team doing a wage comparison survey this summer.
Linde is very active in LeadingAge California, serving as an EMERGE Leadership Development Program coach as well as participating as a member of two committees: the Service Excellence Committee and the Member Engagement Committee. As part of the Member Engagement Committee, Linde is encouraging people to participate in LeadingAge’s Age On, Rage On campaign, created to demonstrate to legislators how many people value services for older adults. “It’s not just for us as staff,” she explains. “It’s to get our residents involved so we really bring the issues of aging services to the forefront to our legislators, to our colleagues – everywhere – so that older people and their issues are heard.”
The experience of visiting the LeadingAge office changed Jenness’ perception of the organization. “I thought LeadingAge was a big machine, and it’s not. It’s a lot more hands-on and one-on-one than I expected.”
Linde concurs. “This isn’t some big corporate office collecting dues and not doing anything. These are people who are really committed to aging services and are working on our behalf every day so that we can get continuing education credits and get regulatory information broken down to us in language we understand quickly. And they’re also really lobbying on our behalf for dollars and for services for seniors.”
The invitation to visit is open to other senior communities, and Linde hopes they will take advantage. “I really believe that proverb that says, ‘Iron sharpens iron, so we sharpen one another.’ I believe we need to be truly rubbing shoulders to sharpen each other.”
Parker Martin says, “Mary Linde showed great leadership cultivation by bringing her full management team to LeadingAge California’s office in Sacramento. It offered not only insights into LeadingAge California, but team-building away from their community. We hope to host other communities in the near future, and look forward to deeper engagement at all levels of the organization. LeadingAge California is your association, and we are here to serve in whatever way possible.”
In January, Webster House welcomed Mehrad “Rod” Moshiri as its new executive director. He’s spent his first month getting to know the community, both staff and residents.
“The first thing that I think I noticed about Webster House is that people care,” he says. “From the line staff to upper management, everybody cares about the residents who live here, which is great. Everything else can be learned. People caring is something you either have it or you don’t.”
After emigrating to the Bay Area from Iran in 1988 at the age of 15, Rod attended San Jose State University, getting a Bachelor’s degree in Occupational Therapy. His first job was as an Occupational Therapist in a Skilled Nursing Facility in Alameda. After that, he moved to San Francisco where he worked first as a rehabilitation manager, then became a case manager and director of case management while at the same time earning his MBA. Meanwhile, he learned of an opportunity to enter an Administrator in Training program: “I applied, I got in, and got my Masters and became an Administrator at the same time.” After getting his Administrator’s license and MBA, Rod managed Skilled Nursing Facilities for about 16 years.
Because Rod’s prior experience has mostly been as the administrator of places like Webster House Health Center, one of his first goals is to get more exposure to the Independent Living side of the community. In his short time here so far, he’s visited the dining committee, the financial study group, and presented at his first Fireside Chat – an all-community update that happens monthly – as well as getting to know individual residents.
“We have the greatest residents,” he says. “They’re very welcoming. They’re very casual. They’re more than happy to converse with people that are interested and letting them know why they’re here,” such as the fact that they can walk half a block to get to downtown Palo Alto.
His first impression of Webster House Health Center, which provides rehabilitation services and skilled nursing, is that “for the size of the health center, it’s a smooth running operation. And that’s typically not achievable unless you have competent people in place. Room for improvement? Always. But looking at it from a global perspective, it’s a smooth-running operation.”
“Because I have the background and experience in the health center side, I would confidently tell people that the care they will receive here is by far much better than 85-90 percent of the skilled nursing facilities in the area,” he says.
Rod was drawn to the position because Webster House and Covia have a good reputation as an employer in the area of senior living. The Assistant Executive Director of St. Paul’s Towers, Maggie Youssef, and Rod had worked together previously and “she spoke very highly of the company,” Rod says. “I can tell you that everyone I have met so far has been great. And I do get emails saying, ‘Everything OK? Do you need anything?’ Knowing that I’m newer to the position, knowing that I may need something, they’re taking the first step to reach out to me before I reach out to them, which is wonderful.”
Being the Executive Director of a Life Plan Community is not an easy role to fill. “You need to be able to wear multiple hats. You need to be able to think on your feet. You need to be able to put out fires right away. And you need to be able to remember that you’re dealing with people’s lives,” Rod says. “It is a tough business. Different personalities, different challenges, different situations. That’s what’s tough about it.”
At the same time, “You can make a difference in people’s lives and well-being,” Rod notes. “What I like about it is that there are no two days that are the same. It never gets boring.”
Especially with so many interesting people around. “I love and welcome conversations. I live by the fact that I have an open-door policy. I invite people to come in and say hi to me in my office. I’m enjoying every day that I’m here and I’m learning a lot.”