At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Senior Helpers CEO Peter Ross couldn’t tell the difference between Tuesday and Saturday. When you’re on the phone with China and India, doing whatever you can to find personal protective equipment (PPE), days of the week go by the wayside.
If there’s one thing that has changed in the second calendar year of the pandemic, it’s that he can finally decipher what day it is.
But a lot else has changed too — both for Senior Helpers, its peers and the home care industry at large.
“Before, everything happened at once,” Ross told Home Health Care News. “We were trying to heat an ocean with a hot water bottle. You’re thinking, ‘What all can I actually affect at one time?’… Year 2 of COVID, to us, is about not wavering. I think people can get relaxed over time.”
Maryland-based Senior Helpers is a home care franchise with over 320 locations worldwide. Ross at least admits that his company has gotten into a groove from an operations standpoint, but it won’t let its guard down any time soon.
“Is this the new normal? I don’t know what that definition is anyway,” Ross said. “But I think when we look at how we’re doing it, we’ve been really very adamant about our system and how this continues to be a serious thing. And we’ve got to continue to do the things we’re doing.”
While home-based care operators like Ross have gained their footing over the last 10 months, the virus still looms large over the health care sector. Compared to when the public health emergency first started, the COVID-19 spread is objectively worse now, with new variants popping up across the globe.
On Jan. 8, over 300,000 new cases were reported in the U.S. Numbers have dipped since, but nearly More than 190,00 new cases were still confirmed Thursday, according to New York Times data.
“In some ways, Year 2 will be very much like Year 1, as long as the virus persists,” Synergy HomeCare CEO Charlie Young told HHCN. “But in other ways, it will be very different. … The use of PPE and safety measures put in place as a result of the pandemic will be the new norm and likely a standard of care that will be with us for a very long time.”
Arizona-based Synergy HomeCare is a non-medical home care franchise that offers companionship, personal assistance, housekeeping and live-in care services across 365 locations nationwide.
PPE’s place in home care specifically has changed indefinitely. Before, PPE may have meant as much as gloves while working. Now Senior Helpers employees, for instance, are donning face masks, gowns and even face shields in the new year.
The face shields are a relatively new update to Senior Helpers’ protocol. That extra precaution has everything to do with the new strains of COVID-19 that are continent-hopping.
New strains reportedly transmit more easily, so having the face shield offers more protection than just a mask, especially for caregivers’ eyes.
“That is something we just made the decision on based on getting good health information … because it’s all about protecting the family, but it’s also about protecting our caregivers,” Ross said. “At least the face shields can be reused. And we still wear a mask underneath them to protect everything.”
A different attitude
At first, there was a rush to secure PPE and implement protocols to protect seniors and caregivers. It was about taking a step back to ensure the welfare of everyone involved in the home care process.
This year should be different.
“Next year will continue to bring uncertainty, but this time we have a better sense of the roadmap — there is light at the end of the tunnel,” HouseWorks CEO Andrea Cohen told HHCN. “We will see a true investment in human capital, new models of care that seamlessly transition clients from one setting to the next and a focus on creating operational efficiencies that companies discovered during COVID.”
Massachusetts-based HouseWorks is a large provider of private-pay home care and home repair services. It has locations in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Cohen said that HouseWorks No. 1 priority in the new year is educating its workers and clients on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
Another Year 2 change has been the collective mindset of home care providers. That has now turned aggressive, as vaccines have entered the market and companies lean into innovation.
“I think the aggressiveness has to do with this opportunity that home care now has,” Ross said. “Home care can kind of be the tip of the spear. We’re in the home all the time. Everybody else just visits.”
Ross has worked hard on advocating for finding vaccines for his employees and clients through various organizations. Senior Helpers has yet to mandate vaccines for its workers, but has strongly encouraged it, as have many others have.
The opportunity doesn’t end with vaccines and the end of COVID-19 either. Year 2 — and Year 1 of COVID-19 — means increased demand for home care across the country.
“I think we’re getting a lot more exposure and more and more people are being discharged to the home,” Ross said. “People want to live out their life in their own home. I think that’s putting more focus and more visibility on what we do as an industry and how important we are, especially because the family caregivers are not growing as fast as the need is growing.”
Senior Helpers saw double-digit growth again in 2020 and has brought on about 30 new franchise owners.
The client and franchisee demand is through the roof. Ross is now more sure than ever that the business of home care is not only recession proof, but also pandemic proof.
“I think a lot of pressure was put on our industry to adapt and overcome, and we’ve got to continue to persevere through this process — don’t let up.” Ross said. “I still feel very fortunate and blessed that we’re in this industry and feel proud of how we were able to handle all of this.”
While demand is surging for home care, those needs will have to be met by caregivers. And they’ve been through a grueling year.
Caregivers — and their clients — are dealing with pandemic fatigue.
“Many of our Caregivers continue to be the only access to the outside world that our clients experience,” Emma Dickison, the CEO and president of Home Helpers Home Care, told HHCN. “Our goal is to help them persist through this final push until they are vaccinated and can safely resume more of the activities they love. In some cases, our caregivers are even assisting in navigating the vaccination process.”
Ohio-based Home Helpers is an in-home care franchise company that has over 300 locations across the U.S.
Meanwhile, staffing questions persist. Unemployment benefits could increase again in March. Some caregivers are still worried about going into work or, in some cases, leaving their loved ones at home.
HouseWorks has a plan to combat that, however, and the company is working on building “caregiver consistency” in 2021.
“We’re going to use our team of caregiver engagement specialists and appoint caregiver ambassadors to proactively reach out, teach and support our caregivers throughout their journey,” Cohen said. “We have created a variety of growth opportunities to provide career paths for our caregivers so they can become directors and managers as well as provide peer support. Our goal is to have a robust pool of engaged caregivers whose primary allegiance is to HouseWorks.”
On Home Helpers’ end, Dickison is hoping to gain displaced workers from other fields that lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“We continue to innovate our training programs by making them even more accessible,” Dickison said. “Our hope is to help those displaced by the pandemic to find a new, rewarding career in an essential position with Home Helpers Home Care.”