LeadingAge members respond to disasters, COVID-19

Regulation | September 01, 2020 | by Juliana Bilowich

Communities serving older adults are navigating the pandemic and natural disasters at the same time.

With wildfire and hurricane season off to a strong start, aging services providers are faced with a daunting task: respond to two emergencies at the same time. For affordable senior housing, nursing homes, home- and community-based services, and other LeadingAge provider members, this can mean readying residents and staff for an evacuation while taking COVID-19 precautions.

Double Trouble: Natural Disasters and COVID-19

During our August 31st Coronavirus Call, LeadingAge affordable housing provider member Catherine Evans shared her story from the frontlines of the wildfires. As Executive Director of Lesley Senior Communities in the Bay Area, her five communities serve roughly 500 older adults with low incomes; with an average age of 80, some residents are frail or near frail and receive assistance from outside caregivers.

Also presenting on the call with 700 aging services providers from across the country was Meghan Rose, General Counsel with LeadingAge California. Rose described the scene before the wildfires started: Because of an intense heatwave that hit the state before the fires set in, the power company instituted rolling overuse blackouts. This left elderly residents in Lesley Senior Communities unable to use the elevators in their 12-story community for hours at a time. "We did a lot of wellfare check calls," said Evans.

Then, when just 18 miles of forest separated Lesley Senior Communities from a fast-moving wildfire, Evans and her team helped residents prepare for evacuation. Without the help of a Resident Service Coordinator, the property staff called each resident in the affected community to recommend personal safety measures, like making voluntary evacuation plans and filling up cars with gas. As the fires got closer, about 30 residents remained with no where to go or no way to get there, said Evans. 

In order to reduce COVID-19 risk with family and friends, evacuees who could afford to had instead booked hotel rooms in safe areas across the state, leaving the closest available rooms six to eight hours away by car. "I called every number I could," said Rose, who previously worked for the California Governor's emergency services office. When Rose was able to get ahold of the Red Cross, they told her not to expect hotel or motel room vouchers, even for sensitive individuals.

After telling people to stay in their homes for the past six months, the Red Cross started asking Californians - even those most at-risk for COVID-19 due to age or underlying health conditions - to go to a group evacuation center. Rose, who reached out to Life Plan Community members in unaffected areas to locate available units for evacuees, said: "Low-income seniors feel like they are left with the choice to die in a fire or die from COVID."

Skilled Nursing Facilities, or SNFs, have also had to navigate new challenges to evacuate residents of the pandemic. Agreements with hospitals or other SNFs were not longer in use: "Because of COVID, many hospitals are not accepting transfers. Some SNFs are accepting transfers, but many have active COVID cases, so providers don’t want to transfer in their healthy residents," said Rose.

While Lesley Senior Communities was spared from the wildfire, her residents are still dealing with poor quality resulting the fire smoke. In the meantime, HUD staff asked Evans for accounts of damage to the properties or to resident belongings, but could not offer further assistance.

When asked what advice they would give to other LeadingAge members facing a natural disaster during the pandemic, including the hurricanes currently impacting the gulf coast, both Evans and Rose recommended making the connections with the Red Cross and other authorities in advance. "Start early," said Rose.

A recording of the call will be made available here. If you aren’t already registered for our calls, sign up for calls here.

We'll update this article as more information becomes available from HUD and FEMA. In the meantime, communities affected by wildfires and poor air quality in the west can visit our LeadingAge state partner webpage for more information: https://www.leadingageca.org/fires. You can also visit fema.gov for the most up-to-date information on disasters in your area, and view our recent article on HUD and CDC disaster preparedness during a pandemic