For ten months the staff and residents of Lutheran Manor of the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania fought a remarkably successful battle against the Coronavirus. One hundred and ninety-six apartments, two hundred and four residents and not a single positive test from March of 2020 through late December. How they managed to accomplish this amazing result is a case study in professional and compassionate housing management.
But it is not a story without loss. Nor is it a story of absolute and final victory. After ten months of incredible success, the holiday season ushered in an eight-week period when five residents tested positive and, tragically, two residents were lost, one confirmed and one suspected from complications from the virus. Local health officials believe none of the cases were the result of transmission to or from others in the building, a testament to the herculean efforts of the Lutheran Manor staff and residents and proof positive that their actions continue to make the difference in a battle that has devastated many living in congregate settings.
To understand what has accounted for the property’s success I spoke at length with Courtney Doheny, the Executive Director of Lutheran Manor, and the holder of multiple NCHM certifications, including Certified Manager of Senior Housing, Certified Occupancy Specialist, and six others.
Courtney credits much of the property’s success to quick action and an “all-hands-on-deck” philosophy among her staff. “When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, we shifted immediately into crisis management mode,” said Courtney. “We were doing our best to learn what we could from public health officials and figure out how to put their recommendations into immediate action,” she said.
One of the first things the staff did was develop a plan to clean every touch point in the building. That was quite an endeavor as Lutheran Manor is an eleven-story building with 196 units and extensive common areas. Despite the enormity of the task, the staff was determined to disinfect every hard service twice a day, every day including weekends and holidays. This included all handrails, doorknobs, elevator buttons, arm rests, restrooms, common laundry equipment, and the myriad of other surfaces that residents and staff touch every day.
In the beginning the job was nearly overwhelming, even though every single member of the staff pitched in. “It wasn’t just our fantastic maintenance staff doing the cleaning,” said Courtney. “Everyone was on the cleaning crew from management to our service coordinator. No sooner would we complete the morning round of cleaning then it was time to start the afternoon schedule.” To accomplish the work all other maintenance in the building except for emergencies was put on hold. “Thankfully, over a matter of a few weeks, we got more and more efficient with the methods and eventually we were able to accomplish the same level of cleaning in about half the time,” said Courtney.
One big advantage was that the property had purchased an electrostatic sprayer just two months before the onset of the pandemic for the purpose of cleaning and disinfecting the exercise equipment in the building’s fitness center. “The sprayer was a Godsend as we were able to disinfect so much faster and more effectively than with hand cleaning, although we still had some lessons to learn. For example, we realized fairly quickly not to use the sprayer on the push plates of the glass doors as we would have to spend a bunch of time hand cleaning the overspray on the glass. So, we learned what areas required hand cleaning and which ones lent themselves to the use of the sprayer,” she explained. “We also learned it was best to use the sprayer for the morning cleaning and hand wipe the surfaces in the afternoon. This enabled us to eliminate any residue that was left by the sprayer,” said Courtney.
The sprayer proved so useful that management decided to buy a second one but by that time the demand for electrostatic sprayers had increased significantly. Fortunately, the property’s good relationship with its local cleaning supply company enabled it to acquire a second piece of equipment after just a two month wait and by June, the deployment of the second sprayer helped to cut the daily cleaning time enough to allow the property’s maintenance staff to begin handling all of the cleaning as well as the lower priority maintenance work that had been put on hold.
(As of the writing of this article, the property is continuing to carry out its comprehensive cleaning schedule, 7 days a week, including every weekend day and holiday!)
Another early decision management made was to remove virtually all the furniture from the building’s common areas. This was quite a task as Lutheran Manor has a large lounge on the main floor that is used daily by many of the residents as well as sitting areas on each of the upper ten floors. “We decided that the only way to accomplish social distancing was to take away the furniture. It was a difficult decision but one that nearly all of the residents understood and supported,” said Courtney.
Management also instituted a strict visitor policy. Only one visitor was permitted in an apartment at any given time and only for medical/health reasons. (The policy was loosened in July 2020, a full month after the Governor of Pennsylvania began rolling back restrictions, to permit two visitors per apartment, and allow social visits.) Masks were required of everyone entering the building and in all areas except individual apartments. Since masks were in short supply at the beginning of the pandemic, the property arranged to have cloth masks made for every resident. When disposable masks became available, management purchased a sufficient supply for every resident and staff member and to this day continues to provide free masks as needed.
In addition to requiring masks, the staff set up sixteen hand sanitizing stations at key locations and required that all visitors sanitize their hands upon entering the building. Signage was set up at the entrance explaining the masking, hand sanitizing and visitor requirements. “We had our printer make these massive signs with fluorescent colors to attract people’s attention,” said Courtney. As the rules have changed the signs are changed but with a wrinkle. “When we change the signs, we change the color, so the signs attract everyone’s attention,” explained Courtney.
Communication with residents has been critical and for this Lutheran Manor has a significant advantage – its own television channel that was set up by the local cable company a few years before the pandemic. The channel enables management to stream live and pre-recorded programming directly to each resident’s apartment. This has proved to be a great help not only for communicating information regarding pandemic safety measures but also to increase resident entertainment and engagement. “We bought a DVD player and tied it into our cable channel. Then we bought every episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ and licenses for other shows and movies that we knew our residents would enjoy and we began showing those”, explained Courtney. “We also shifted our regular in-person resident programming, such as yoga classes, tai chi, health and wellness forums, and worship services on to our channel,” said Courtney. “And when we aren’t airing programs, we have a running message board that intersperses reminders related to pandemic protocols, like adhering to social distancing and wearing masks, with news, weather and the schedule of events in the building,’ she explained.
In addition to constant communication, Courtney credits staff presence with helping to build resident support for the measures implemented to keep everyone safe. “Residents see all of us constantly in the hallways and common areas, cleaning and doing other things to promote safety. This has helped to build the confidence of residents and, just as importantly, their family members, that we are here every day, even on weekends and holidays, to protect them,” said Courtney.
Another critical decision that has required the support and cooperation of residents and their families was adoption of a policy asking that any resident returning from a hospital or rehab stay or any other extended trip outside the facility voluntarily self-quarantine for 14 days. Courtney explains that the property checks on the quarantined residents every day and helps to facilitate any assistance they need including delivering their mail and arranging for groceries. “We also give them no contact thermometers and have them check their temperature every day and report the results to us,” explained Courtney. “We have made it so easy for the residents to stay in their apartments, she said. “Fortunately, we have had very few situations that required quarantine but when we have, we have received tremendous cooperation from our residents and their loved ones,” said Courtney proudly.
It has been a long haul for the residents and staff of Lutheran Manor and the journey is not yet over, but there is hope for a brighter future. The Friday before my conversation with Courtney the local health department held a vaccine clinic at the building and 132 residents were vaccinated. In addition to helping arrange for the on-site clinic, the Lutheran Manor staff had in the previous weeks facilitated vaccinations for scores of other residents at the two local hospitals. Additionally, staff and third parties that frequent the building, such as health aides, have been encouraged to get vaccinated as the vaccines become available to them. Courtney estimates that 79% of the residents and staff have now received at least one dose of the vaccine. “We aren’t dropping our guard. We know from firsthand experience that even the best plans can’t stop this terrible virus. But we are going to continue to fight for our residents every day,” said Courtney.
I asked Courtney to pick the four factors that have made the biggest difference in their ability to respond so effectively to the pandemic. Here’s what she said:
- A Committed Team: “I have a tremendous team. They love Lutheran Manor. When COVID started and we had to step up our game every single one of them came forward and said what can I do to help? What can we do to help keep our residents safe?”
- A Supportive Board: “Our Board of Directors has been so supportive of our efforts. Their direction was clear and simple: ‘Courtney, do whatever you have to do to keep the residents and staff safe’.”
- Communication: “We communicate every day, multiple times a day, in a variety of different ways. It isn’t just about Coronavirus, it’s about the general well-being and happiness of our residents.”
- Cooperative and Understanding Residents and Family Members: “Nothing we have done would have been possible without the wonderful residents and caring family members we have here at Lutheran Manor. They make the difference.”
I would add one more factor. A dedicated and talented leader, whose compassion for her residents and staff is matched by her professionalism and humanity.
We are so proud to call Courtney Doheny a NCHM certified housing professional.