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
On Thursday, October 18th, residents and staff throughout Covia participated in the Great ShakeOut, an earthquake safety drill. From Santa Rosa to Southern California, Covia took time to “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” and then gathered to review and reflect.
“An earthquake drill like the Great ShakeOut is an example of staff and residents increasing their safety awareness by practicing what they have learned,” says Grant Edelstone, Senior Director of Risk Management. “When a person drops, covers and holds on and then responds to a simulated fire or burst pipe or power outage, they increase their readiness for an actual earthquake.”
Even before the event, people were getting prepared. Covia’s Resident Service Coordinators working in Senior Affordable Housing communities throughout California assisted Housing Administrators with a pre-drill information meeting. Topics discussed included an explanation of the Great Shakeout and what was to be expected as well as evacuation options and routes. San Francisco Towers offered an Emergency Preparedness Department Update in advance of the drill and invited residents to prepare in advance by scouting out the safest place to be in their apartment in case of an earthquake.
San Francisco Towers, which was built after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, has participated in the drill for years. Executive Director Christina Spence says, “We participate so residents and staff are prepared for the likely event of an earthquake that impacts our community.” The drill at the Towers involved more than Covia staff and residents, Spence reports. “Our California Department of Public Health Life Safety surveyor showed up right at 10:18. She ‘dropped, covered and held’ right along with us!”
Sadie Bracy, Housing Administrator at Jennings Court in Santa Rosa says, “We made noise with pots and pans and flickered the lights to simulate an earthquake. Two residents actually got on the floor under the table! Then we talked about the potential impacts of an earthquake afterword. We also talked about the safety of the building and installing the seismic gas shut off valve for more safety of Jennings Court.”
At Support Services, Covia’s administrative offices in Walnut Creek, an announcement over the PA alerted everyone in the building to the start of the drill. Afterwards, staff received a demo on go-bags and the locations of safety equipment and exits. “Last year during the fire [in Santa Rosa], I heard more than one resident say they’d been told to prepare a go-bag, but they didn’t think they’d actually need it,” says Laura Darling, a member of the Covia Safety Committee. “You don’t know you’ll need it until you do.”
Covia also prepared for the safety of seniors who would be unable to move themselves in the case of an emergency. At Webster House Health Center in Palo Alto, everyone participated in the drill. “All 3 floors participated along with vendors and home health agencies in the community during the drill. We had families and volunteers participating too,” says Assistant Executive Director Linda Hibbs. “I was stationed on 4th floor and the staff actively participated and moved the residents to a safe location.”
Hibbs continues, “After the drill was over we discussed why we have drills, what to do in a drill and how did the staff and residents think the drill had gone. The residents said thank you to the staff for practicing the drill and including them too. A few residents said they were happy that Webster House cared enough about them to practice if an earthquake happened and included residents in the drill.”
These drills are valuable preparation, Edelstone explains. “When there is a real earthquake, staff may react faster without thinking because of their practice. It can help them whether at home, work or traveling. Similarly, regular fire, disaster, active shooter and other drills increase safety readiness.”
And drills are just one part of building a culture of safety at Covia. “Covia has a commitment to safety in all levels of the organization,” says Edelstone. “Covia promotes a safety culture. This culture of safety’s goal is to achieve consistently safe operations that minimized adverse events. It represents a blame-free environment where everyone is able to report mistakes or errors or near misses or safety hazards, without fear of reprimand or punishment. A culture of safety encourages staff collaboration to solve safety problems. It strives to prevent or reduce errors and improve overall quality.”
Sadie Bracy at Jennings Court says, “A culture of safety means we anticipate that there will be an emergency at one point and we prepare ahead of time for it. That we take keeping our residents safe very seriously. And that we are constantly trying to improve our emergency responses.”