Lori Alford speaking

Eight weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, The Woodlands, TX-based Avanti Senior Living is an anomaly in the senior living industry by remaining COVID-free among residents and staff.

Avanti Chief Operating Officer Lori Alford said that statistic has a lot to do with early controlled access, treatment of anyone who left a community as COVID-positive upon their return, team commitment and a little bit of luck.

Avanti, which has assisted living and memory care communities in Texas, Louisiana and Arizona, recently won a court case regarding an order to readmit a resident after a hospital stay, further bolstering its quick policy shifts early on in the pandemic.

Avanti was among the first long-term care operators to “bubble up” its buildings in the early stages of the pandemic. Access was limited for both visitors and vendors, employees were asked to limit their employment to Avanti only, and a policy was implemented requiring residents who left a community to produce a COVID-negative test before being allowed to move back in.

“Our view was, if they go out, we make the assumption they have COVID,” Alford told McKnight’s Senior Living, adding that anyone who returns is quarantined for 14 days. “It’s one of the main reasons it’s extraordinary in six buildings to not have COViD. We have a building right outside of New Orleans, so it’s not like we’re in markets with no COVID. Every single one of our markets, a lot of competitors have it.”

That policy was tested recently when a resident’s family requested readmittance for a loved one after a hospital stay. The resident had undergone a COVID-19 test, but the results had not come back yet, prompting Avanti to deny the request. The family responded with a “love letter” from an attorney demanding readmission, prompting Avanti to issue its own letter re-stating the need for a negative COVID-19 test result.

“It was my job to protect my teams, their families and our residents,” Alford said. “If I gave grace to one and bent the rules, that’s not adhering to the promise I made to my teams for me to protect them.”

At one point, seven constables showed up and issued Avanti a “right to re-enter the building” document. Avanti again denied readmission and filed for an emergency hearing, which initially was denied. Alford and Avanti National Medical Director Ewan D. Johnson, M.D., Ph.D., jumped on a virtual call with the judge to provide its side of the story, resulting in an emergency hearing the next day.

That hearing resulted in a judgment in Avanti’s favor, and the case was dropped. Within 24 hours, the resident’s test came back negative, and he was allowed to move back in. 

“COVID is a stressful time,” Alford said. “It just creates a lot of different things we’re not used to. Families never thought about it either.”

Alford said she doesn’t see the case as a victory for Avanti, but more of a thank you to the legal system for backing an operator and “doing the right thing for the overall community” versus one individual.

The win, she added, sent a strong message to Avanti employees.

“After the storm settled, it was just another way to show how strong our culture is,” Alford said.

Avanti’s limits on visitation extended to its home healthcare and hospice vendors, too. Alford said the company realized it had a lot of people coming and going from buildings, so they contacted those vendors and asked them to assign one person to handle Avanti-only cases. 

“It was a winning situation. We really limited people coming in and out,” she said.

Next, the company looked at hospitals and doctor’s offices — places Avanti wanted to keep residents away from to further limit the chance of infection. Avanti already was piloting telehealth in one of its buildings, so it was easy to flip the switch company-wide.

The company extended access to its telehealth services to its employees for free, seeing the move as another way to limit infection. As a result, she said, Avanti has realized the lowest overtime and callouts in company history.

“Every employee is so proud we are COVID-free. Everyone is holding everyone accountable, making sure they are wearing their masks and washing their hands,” she said. “Every person at every level is all wanting the same thing. ‘Avanti One’ is our new slogan. We’re all doing this together and motivating each other. We live in our little bubble where it really is unicorns and rainbows.”

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