Before the pandemic, a handful of differentiators separated Renew Senior Communities in Colorado from its competitors — an in-house sommelier, animal therapy, chef demonstrations and craft experiences among them. I believe it’s the latest accomplishment that perhaps is most important to residents and their loved ones, however. As of this writing, not a single resident at Renew Senior Communities has had a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Due to close collaboration with medical directors, our own rigorous infection prevention disciplines, and a robust preemptive testing program, not one of our residents has tested positive throughout this entire pandemic crisis.

Farron Bernhardt, our vice president of operations, attributes the accomplishment to the pre-emptive measures taken in February, as well the company’s overall approach to senior living, which is quite unique in the senior living world.

“I knew if I kept my staff healthy, I would keep my residents healthy,” he said.

When Farron first heard about the virus in China in the early spring, he started ordering large quantities of personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns, booties, disinfectants and face shields in anticipation of a disruption of the global supply chain. He pursued non-traditional sources, such as veterinarian and school nurse suppliers, stocking up on the safety equipment that soon would be sold out nationally.

Next, he started educating staff on proper hygiene at home as well as at work. Staff members needed to understand that if COVID came in the building, the only way in was through an employee.

Renew put together a comprehensive COVID response plan with very strict guidelines, with the main goal of keeping the buildings’ many residents healthy and virus-free. We implemented the plan fully by March 15, even before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis instituted a state lockdown.

We were very proactive in our approach. We closed down earlier than most of our peer communities, stopping visitors and allowing only essential vendors — hospice caregivers — in the buildings. Employees had their temperatures taken before every shift and answered daily screening questions. Starting in July and continuing today, staff members are tested for the virus every two weeks at no cost to them.

Our facilities also worked with infectious disease control experts to design a safe move-in process that includes COVID-19 testing and a “quarantine neighborhood” within the building for all new residents before they’re integrated into the population.

We knew that staff members’ mental health was just as important as their physical health, and Farron made strides to help them feel safe as well as appreciated. Early on in the pandemic, Renew provided grocery bags with staple items such as toilet paper, peanut butter, bread and more to try to make sure employees and their families were well cared for at home. Employees also were invited to take home chef-prepared meals for four people once a week at no cost. Over the past few months, random treats such as cookies and ice cream bars, as well as catered lunches, have been delivered to show the staff members that we appreciate their hard work. As some of the staff members’ children have returned to school, Renew has helped to provide face masks, hand sanitizer and any other school supply they might have trouble finding.

The goal is to reduce their stress at home as well as in the work environment.

“We wanted to get the message to them that we care about them as much as they care about the residents,” Farron said. “Our staff has learned from their colleagues working in other healthcare organizations that not even the hospitals are doing what we’re doing to take care of the staff.”

Perhaps that is why Renew hasn’t had any trouble retaining employees, whereas other senior living communities in Colorado and other parts of the country have seen a shortage.

Also during the pandemic, the popular talk series Renew hosts pivoted to a digital model, but with the same caliber of highly credentialed speakers, discussing topics ranging from how to slow the spread of COVID-19 among older adults to more light-hearted topics, such as a virtual wine tasting led by an Italian winemaker and sommelier.

“I’ve been in senior housing for 35 years, and I have learned it’s important to put people first, especially employees and especially during a pandemic,” Farron said.