Protecting Alexandria seniors during the COVID-19 outbreak

Protecting Alexandria seniors during the COVID-19 outbreak
The "Neighborhood Buggy" at Hermitage Northern Virginia travels from floor to floor with goodies, helping bring treats and fun to residents while they can’t gather together. (Photo/Hermitage Northern Virginia)

By Missy Schrott |

One population that has been especially hard hit by the coronavirus is adults age 65 and older.

It’s unclear how many older Alexandrians have tested positive for COVID-19, as the Alexandria Health Department is not releasing personal information, including age, about the 248 cases in the city. Nevertheless, senior living facilities, nursing homes and senior services organizations throughout Alexandria are working hard to protect this vulnerable population.

While seniors are already at-risk because of their age, many also have underlying medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease, that put them at a higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19.

A severe outbreak at a nursing home in Richmond, Virginia has demonstrated how dangerous the virus can be for seniors. Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center reported its first positive COVID-19 diagnosis on March 18. As of press time, 45 of the facility’s 160 residents have died as a result of the virus, according to the Associated Press.

Hermitage Northern Virginia, a retirement community in Alexandria, reported that a resident tested positive for COVID-19 on April 8.

Hermitage Northern Virginia is located at 5000 Fairbanks Ave. (Photo/Hermitage Northern Virginia)

“On the afternoon of Tuesday the 7th, the resident started exhibiting some mild symptoms – fever, dry cough – so our team decided, in light of everything that’s going on, that we really should send her out for testing,” Chris Henderson, chief executive officer of Pinnacle Living, the company that manages Hermitage Northern Virginia, said.

The resident was sent to Inova Alexandria Hospital, where she was tested the same day, on April 7. By the evening of April 8, Hermitage received notice that she had tested positive.

Henderson declined to provide the name, age or current condition of the resident. He said he did not know how she had contracted the virus.

Since the resident tested positive, Hermitage staff have been taking extra precautions.

“The area where the resident lived has nine other residents, so we’re treating all of those residents as if they have potentially been exposed, and that’s out of an abundance of caution,” Henderson said. “We worked with their families and their responsible parties to notify them what’s going on.”

Should more residents begin exhibiting symptoms, Hermitage has plans in place to transform one floor of its healthcare center into a quarantine ward, in order to separate residents and team members who are exhibiting symptoms from those who are not, Henderson said.

Hermitage, in addition to several other long-term care facilities in Alexandria, began taking precautions in response to the coronavirus more than a month ago.

Hermitage’s leadership team began working on strategies in early March. By March 5, they began restricting visitation. Less than a week later, they had increased restrictions and began taking the temperature of anyone entering the facility.

Goodwin House Alexandria is located at 4800 Fillmore Ave. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

Goodwin House Incorporated, another senior living and health care services organization in the city, established an Infection Precaution and Planning program in late February. Since then, a team has been meeting daily to review efforts, monitor overnight guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments and update infection precautions as needed, according to Lindsay Hutter, chief strategy and marketing officer with Goodwin House Incorporated.

Sunrise Senior Living in Alexandria also expanded its evidenced-based infection control program in response to the virus in February.

Regardless of when they began, most senior living facilities in Alexandria have implemented similar precautions, including restricting visitation, practicing screening protocols, closing communal spaces within the facility and using personal protective equipment.

However, like many hospitals, healthcare providers, nonprofits and businesses nationwide, Alexandria’s senior living facilities are also struggling to acquire PPE.

“Unfortunately, personal protective equipment is our biggest challenge at this point in this outbreak,” Henderson said. “We have adequate gloves, we have plenty of surgical masks, the cloth surgical masks. Our big shortage right now are the N95 masks.

“We were hopeful that with this diagnosis in Alexandria, that the Northern Virginia Healthcare Coalition and the Alexandria [Health Department] would help us with some supplies there,” he continued. “We received supplies from them last night and this morning and there are very, very few N95 masks that are in that shipment. We’re also very short on protective gowns. We’re using what we have, but because we’re using them for all residents who potentially have been exposed, we go through them very quickly.”

With all the precautions in place, many seniors are feeling more isolated than ever. To help fend off boredom and keep residents engaged, several Alexandria facilities have replaced physical activities with remote gatherings.

“Our life enrichment teams … have shifted in-person activities to live streaming of programming, movies, lectures and more,” Hutter said in an email. “They also have delivered activity kits to residents, and each week, we feature learning moments which residents can access online from their apartments.”

Hermitage has challenged the phrase “social distancing,” encouraging residents to remain socially engaged and posting regular activity updates on its Facebook page.

“We like to use ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing,’” Henderson said. “Physical distancing with social engagement is going to be the key for all of us to get through this.”

While nursing homes and long-term care centers are at-risk locations for an outbreak, seniors living outside of these facilities in the community may also be struggling during this time.

“A lot of our older adults are already isolated, so being home during this virus really creates some concern,” Pamela Austin, aging and disability resource coordinator with the city’s Division of Aging and Adult Services, said.

Resources from food delivery to phone call check-ins are available for Alexandria seniors through the city.

The Division of Aging and Adult Services has continued offering some of its regular programming, such as its homemaker service, which allows older adults in the community to get support with cleaning, laundry or hygiene needs. They’ve also introduced some new resources, including a frozen meal delivery service.

“This is really for older adults who really would not qualify under our traditional program – that before the pandemic hit, they were able to go out and do their grocery shopping, do their own cooking or have someone to do it for them,” Austin said. “Now, because we want to make sure that the older adults are staying home and safe, we’ve added in this frozen meal option. So basically, twice a week, we are delivering frozen meals.”

For more information about resources available for older adults in Alexandria, visit or

In trying times, community members have continued to show compassion for those in need, and several people are directing these good deeds toward the senior community.

“There’s been a lot of great stories,” Austin said. “Just within our own staff, we have people who are taking vans and helping people to get tested. We do have people that are delivering the meals that would not normally deliver meals, taking time out from their day to do that.”

St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School has developed a student-resident buddy program with residents at Goodwin House, through which students and seniors are partnered to become mutual supporters. Residents in a Facebook group called “Alexandrians Supporting Alexandrians During COVID” initiated an effort to send handwritten cards to Woodbine Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Alexandria.

Numerous other stories have demonstrated that the Alexandria community is rallying around its vulnerable populations to help ease the pain of the coronavirus.

(Read more: Local organizations supply food during coronavirus pandemic)