Under normal circumstances, in-home care providers and their professional caregivers are often tasked with being first to notice any changes in a person’s health. For Senior Helpers, this duty carries even more weight during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some ways, the coronavirus outbreak has turned the home care franchise company and its locations into first-responders, Peter Ross, co-founder and CEO of Senior Helpers, told Home Health Care News.
“I kind of look at what we do as first-responders,” Ross said. “Firemen don’t go into the home and then leave when it starts burning. We’ve got to make sure that we can take care of our clients whether they have COVID-19 or not. In times of crisis, our caregivers are the first ones clients see.”
Maryland-based Senior Helpers has over 320 locations in its franchise network, spread across 43 states, as well as Canada and Australia.
Founded in the early 2000s, Senior Helpers has operated through major public health emergencies before. But one of the key differences between the coronavirus and other outbreaks in the past is how comparatively difficult it has been to appropriately respond, according to Ross.
“Those [past outbreaks] certainly impacted people’s health and well-being … but these are uncharted waters,” he said. “We are now in an environment where we are under emergency orders in most parts of the country. We are working with an illness that doesn’t have a vaccine or treatment, other than social distancing.”
For a large franchise network like Senior Helpers, differing state-by-state orders can create further complexities, as each franchise location may require its own dedicated response plan.
Due to the vital role home care plays when it comes to keeping older adults safe and healthy, providers of non-medical personal care services have found themselves in the trenches alongside the rest of the health care system during the COVID-19 crisis, Ross said.
“If you look at the stats that the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] put out, people over the age of 80 are the most hard-hit by the virus,” he said. “That’s predominantly our clients. The average ages of our clients are late 70s, early 80s, and we have clients who are up to age 100.”
Indeed, COVID-19’s impact on older adults has been severe.
Roughly 30% of COVID-19 patients ages 75 to 84 have been hospitalized, with 10.5% admitted for ICU stays, according to the CDC. When looking at patients 85 and older, 31.3% have been hospitalized, with 6.3% landing in the ICU.
Globally, the coronavirus has reportedly affected more than 1 million people.
A battle on two fronts
Like most home care providers at this time, Senior Helpers is fighting a battle on two fronts. The company is focused on maintaining a healthy workforce while trying to make sure its clients receive care.
As part of its COVID-19 response, Senior Helpers has been regularly checking in with its caregivers regarding symptoms and potential exposures.
“A lot of folks we take care of are homebound,” Ross said. “The only way they would get infected by the virus is if someone were to bring it into the home. We really want to make sure that we are careful and that our caregivers are healthy before they go in. Not that there’s a perfect science to that.”
When a caregiver has been infected, Senior Helpers follows a specific response protocol, according to Ross.
“Our protocol is to send the caregiver home with quarantine instructions for 14-days,” he said. “During this time, we will pay them their average weekly pay so they are not hurt financially with this burden. Once they are virus-free, we will bring them back to active service with our clients.”
Even if a caregiver only suspects they might have the virus, the company requires them to self-quarantine for 14-days, with pay, to ensure safety.
At this time, Senior Helpers does not have any hard numbers on its COVID-19 caseload, Ross said. But the company has begun caring for multiple clients recovering from or living with the virus, he confirmed.
“We have been contacted by a number of families and facilities discharging COVID-19 clients,” he said. “They are aware that Senior Helpers follows proper protocols including [personal protective equipment] for clients infected with COVID-19. We see this as a growing need across the country and want to respond to this demand.”
Along with clients, Senior Helpers also supplies its caregivers with PPE, something that has become increasingly difficult for providers as national stockpiles continue to wane.
“It’s been a challenge, just like with any other health care organization,” Ross said. “We’ve been able to contact many of our existing vendors who have helped us navigate this competitive landscape. We are able to obtain items from multiple sources in order to fill the need we have.”
The PPE shortage has caused the company to be prudent about its purchasing, according to Ross.
“We are not trying to compete with life-saving hospitals,” he said. “I’ve had opportunities to buy things and have said, ‘No, it should go to a hospital.’ At the same time, we are on the frontlines, too.”
In the spirit of working together as an industry, instead of working as individuals, Senior Helpers has aided other home care companies in gaining access to PPE, as well.
On a company-wide level, Senior Helpers has been putting out a daily bulletin to brief its franchisees on relevant up-to-date information, on everything from safety procedures to COVID-19 related federal news.
Additionally, Senior Helpers created a website that allows the company’s staff to send questions to a response panel that includes a medical team, the company’s leadership team and its operations team.
The company has also begun conducting weekly — and, when necessary, bi-weekly — town-hall meetings hosted by Ross or other members of the leadership team. So far, topics have ranged from paid-sick leave to the CARES Act.
“The key is opening up communication,” Ross said. “Make it timely and make it consistent. We want to support them in any way that we can by giving them the tools and resources.”
Ross, who once called the home care industry, the “tip of the spear,” believes this sentiment now more than ever.
“When it comes to aging in this country, we are seeing that home care is front and center,” he said. “I don’t really like the term ‘non-medical.’ We are in health care. We are the first ones in the home to take care of people, and we are finding that doctors are feeling more comfortable sending seniors home in [our care].”