At the start of the pandemic, Claire Sheehan had no problem keeping busy. She didn’t feel isolated or lonely. But, as time marched on, her attitude shifted as she realized the crisis would continue through the holidays—and beyond.
“I couldn’t get out and no one came in,” said Sheehan, a resident of Jack Satter House, a Hebrew SeniorLife community in Revere. “It was physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausting. This past Christmas was the first one I ever spent alone. I couldn’t see my daughters and their families. I couldn’t hug my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Over the past month, Sheehan has felt hopeful again, thanks to a COVID-19 testing pilot launched by Hebrew SeniorLife and 2Life Communities.
With $144,000 in support from CJP’s Coronavirus Emergency Fund, both senior living organizations now offer surveillance rapid antigen testing and pooled PCR testing from Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks and E25 Bio to their residents, staff, and visitors. Rapid tests are individual COVID-19 tests that produce results in 15 minutes. With pool testing, respiratory samples from several people are combined and tested together to detect COVID-19. Pooling allows labs to test more samples with fewer testing materials. If the pool is negative, everyone in that test pool is negative for COVID-19. If a positive is detected in a pool, further testing is done to isolate the case(s).
“CJP is proud to have been a critical funder of this testing pilot as part of our overall prioritization of older adults during the pandemic,” said Sarah Abramson, CJP’s senior vice president of strategy and impact. “Social isolation is real and has long-term damaging effects to everyone, especially seniors. Thanks to the generosity of our community, the seniors in these communities now have more opportunities for interaction and socialization, which is such a key part of living a happy, healthy life.”
In this time of crisis, Abramson said, CJP also has supported older adults by funding outdoor heat lamps at Hebrew SeniorLife and 2Life Communities so residents can warmly and safely socialize outside, kosher holiday meals for those in need through the Passover “Seder in a Box” initiative, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and residents at senior living communities.
Now, Emergency Fund dollars are helping to provide for a combined 20,000 COVID-19 tests and three staff across both organizations to support the testing pilot. The pool testing is helping 2Life Communities and Hebrew SeniorLife quickly identify and isolate cases, perform contact tracing, and offer support to those affected. The rapid testing is used to give residents quick peace of mind, and to screen staff and private aides entering the buildings.
An extra sense of security
At 2Life Communities, the new rapid testing has allowed residents to gather in masked, socially distanced small groups and welcome limited outside visitors to their apartments.
“Our residents couldn’t be happier,” said Cindy Katzeff, executive director of Brown Family House in Brookline, a 2Life Communities property with 60 apartments that opened in September. “They have such a hunger for relationships. Zoom is great, but it’s not an option for everyone, and it’s not the same as true in-person connection.”
At 2Life Communities’ Coleman House in Newton, residents have been participating in distanced outdoor activities since June. A group of residents, known as “The Polar Bear Club,” are still bundling up and walking together outside. But now with regular testing, small groups of residents can gather with masks indoors.
Getting ready for the vaccine: 2Life Communities led a successful advocacy campaign to state officials to include seniors in low-income housing in the next phase of vaccine distribution, which is set to begin in February. Recently, Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that bringing the vaccine to seniors in low-income housing would “further protect vulnerable populations and ensure equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.” Watch the press conference with this vaccine announcement here.
“The testing has had a huge impact,” said Robin Nasson, executive director of the 146-unit Coleman House. “Everyone feels so much more comfortable on so many levels. Testing gives us an extra sense of security. It allows our residents to re-engage in social connections, which has been a huge issue during COVID-19.”
Collaborating for change
The testing pilot, months in the making, was possible because of an innovative collaboration between officials at both senior living organizations, CJP, and a group of nationally renowned experts in medicine, science, technology, and business, according to Kim Brooks, chief operating officer of senior living at Hebrew SeniorLife, which has 1,700 independent living residents at five sites.
“CJP’s generous support has enabled Hebrew SeniorLife to develop a robust COVID-19 testing strategy,” said Brooks. “Information gathered through pooled PCR and rapid antigen testing for residents and staff has truly provided a level of confidence, speed, and accuracy during this pandemic. We have implemented this effective and affordable testing in HSL’s five senior living communities, enabling us to reach multiple groups of seniors easily and to identify and isolate cases quickly. It’s such a relief to seniors to know they are COVID-19 free and can go about their lives following standard COVID-19 health precautions.”
This COVID-19 testing is not only impacting seniors in the community; it’s paving the way for improved pool testing throughout Massachusetts, said Simon Johnson, a professor of global economics and management and entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who served as an advisor to the testing pilot.
“Much of the state’s current thinking on pooled testing—including the recently announced K-12 proposal for comprehensive screening—flows directly from this pilot and discussions with officials at Hebrew SeniorLife and 2Life Communities,” Johnson said. “This testing initiative has helped change the thinking at the state level in a way that will help millions of people, both in terms of public health and being able to resume safer economic activities sooner. This is simply a remarkable achievement in the face of the greatest adversity faced by our country in modern times.”
For now, Sheehan is just happy to be back doing some of her pre-pandemic activities. Regular testing, she said, has given her new confidence and a sense of optimism as she awaits her vaccine.
“I’m excited and hopeful,” she said. “I’ve been going for rides in my car, to church, and the grocery story, following safety precautions. I can walk down Revere Beach Boulevard. I know I don’t have COVID-19 and I’m not spreading it.”