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A two-month battle with COVID-19 left staff and residents of Cherry Springs Village battered. Now the assisted living community is asking lawmakers not to leave them behind.

The community launched a petition, “HELP SAVE SENIORS! Support Assisted Living Heroes!” to send a message to lawmakers to provide additional funding for staff, personal protective equipment, testing and treatment. As of July 1, the petition had close to 2,000 supporters.

“The world is mobilizing around response to COVID-19. Unfortunately, assisted living is being left behind,” the petition states.

The campaign encourages everyone — residents, families, staff and the general public — to sign the petition to “raise the issue and apply public pressure to the decision-makers,” a spokesperson for Cherry Springs Village told McKnight’s Senior Living.

The 60-bed Hendersonville, NC, assisted living community, owned by Hickory-based ALG Senior (which changed its name from Affinity Living Group effective July 1), had about 50 people recover from COVID-19 and 10 residents die during a two-month outbreak. There are 39 residents and about 20 staff members at the community, which is now COVID-19-free.

A county “strike team” of emergency management, county health officials, nurses, doctors, a hospice group and others came together to support the community in a variety of ways, including staffing and infection control through mid-May.

“It took a lot of resources for us to fight this deadly virus,” said Spring Neal, area operations director who led the Cherry Springs team through its COVID-19 battle. “Our victory came at a cost. We expended so many resources over these long months — additional staff, time, equipment, food supplies, cleaning supplies and more. It was a costly fight.”

A spokesperson said additional expenses related to fighting COVID-19 included PPE supplies, sanitation supplies for the building and equipment, hotel rooms for staff members, in-room dining solutions, individual activity supplies to entertain residents in their rooms, and additional staffing to help with care and communication to families.

“The Greater Hendersonville community rallied around Cherry Springs throughout this situation, with a special focus on providing meals for the staff who were working long hours to care for residents,” the spokesperson said. “Their support helped boost morale for those staff members and allow them to focus on providing care and avoid extraneous trips in and out of the building.” 

Neal said the community serves a “very vulnerable population. And we focus on providing care to those who otherwise may not be able to afford it.”

Neal said communities such as Cherry Springs need financial assistance to continue to provide care as COVID-19 remains a threat. Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has earmarked approximately $15 billion in grants to eligible state Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program providers, including assisted living operators, Neal said those funds have not been released, leaving operators under financial stress.

“We need that money,” Neal said. “Earmarking it isn’t enough. It has to be released and accessible to communities like ours who so desperately need it.”

Argentum ‘Standing with Seniors’ campaign continues

At the national level, Argentum is relaunching its Standing with Seniors letter-writing campaign next week to “re-energize participation” before the August congressional recess.

The effort calls on Congress to take action to protect residents and staff in senior living communities from COVID-19 by providing timely access to testing. It also recommends that future legislative packages “provide for adequate supplies to prevent, test for, and respond to any outbreaks, ensure regulations support the ability to care for residents, and that communities have the resources able to maintain operations throughout this pandemic and beyond.”

“It is imperative that lawmakers hear not only from industry leaders, but form constituents who are most directly affected by this crisis and why Congress must prioritize senior living communities,” a statement on Argentum’s website reads.

The association has provided a pre-written template on its website that can be sent to legislators. According to an Argentum spokesperson, 53,000 letters have been sent to date from senior living staff, residents, families and advocates. The bulk of those letters have come from California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

McLean, VA-based Sunrise Senior Living has been a major supporter of Argentum’s campaign. In a May 12 letter, CEO Chris Winkle said that despite the industry’s efforts to keep the virus at bay, senior living communities face ongoing challenges in fighting to secure PPE and support for testing. 

“It is clear we have made significant investments to help protect the safety and well-being of our residents and team members. But when it comes to federal funding to support this critical work, unlike the airlines, hospitality and other industries, assisted living has been left out of the conversation,” he said. “And the incredible efforts of our heroes, the team members on the front line serving our seniors, are going unnoticed.”