Mark Parkinson headshot
AHCA / NCAL President and CEO Mark Parkinson

COVID-19 is “a nightmare beyond any worst-case scenario” for the senior living and care industry, but the overriding message is “we’re going to get through this,” Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living said Tuesday.

Parkinson made those definitive statements while taking part in a policy discussion for the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care 2020 Fall Conference, which is being held virtually this week and next.

With more than 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, COVID-19 has been a “clinical nightmare and a business disaster,” he said. 

“We were completely unprepared for the first wave” of COVID-19, Parkinson said, adding that the virus’ ability to spread through asymptomatic carriers was different than any virus the industry had ever faced. Its effects have been compounded by personal protective equipment shortages and a lack of access to testing, he added. “Horrendous policy mistakes made at multiple levels created the challenges we had,” Parkinson said.

The industry, however, is in better shape if there is a second wave, he said. Although policymakers “have not done great,” scientists have, Parkinson believes. Additional antigen testing, access to PPE and increasing clinical knowledge about the virus has given operators the ability to better care for people, he added.

And although average occupancy levels have not recovered from big drops, the federal government recognizes the industry as an essential service by providing Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, and a vaccine is on the horizon.

“People need our services. We have a growing demographic really exploding in the age group we take care of,” Parkinson said. “The demographics are compelling. We will win the public’s confidence back, and this will be a good space to be in eventually.”

Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator for the Center for Medicaid & Medicare Services, was the session’s other featured speaker and said that COVID-19 has created opportunities for innovation and improved ways of doing things. 

“I suspect out of this there will be a learning moment and industries emerge stronger from crisis if they do some self-examination,” Slavitt said. “This is an industry everyone cares about. It’s too important to fail.”

The fact that the industry is opening dialogue and talking to the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services every day shows that the various bodies are figuring out solutions together, Slavitt said.

Parkinson said that trying to move on with “business as usual” would be a huge mistake and that the senior living and care industry needs to make a decision on whether it will be a leader and a partner in analyzing what happened, or be an obstructionist.

“You can’t ignore the fact that close to 100,000 people died in long-term care facilities,” he said, adding that the industry needs to use the pandemic as a “moment of reflection” and an opportunity to do better in the future. 

In terms of the regulatory environment, Parkinson said that more regulations and more fines are not the answer.

“One thing that may come out of this is a recognition that let’s just regulate the things that really matter,” he said, suggesting that more resources should go into infection control and person-centered planning and activities. “Instead of having 1,000 different things that are regulated, let’s figure out the 50 or 75 clinical things that really do matter and focus on them.”

Slavitt agreed that the pandemic is a “teachable moment” for the entire country.

“This is the opportunity of the moment,” Slavitt said. “There are things if we do it together — and by together, I mean state and federal regulators, Congress, the industry — led by a vision from the industry, this could be an exciting future.”

Parkinson said it’s important to “embrace this moment” and focus on the systemic problems that led the industry to this point.

“I’m confident 10 years from now, this sector will be thriving, this massive influx of older people that need care will have places to go,” Parkinson said. “It will be hard, the resources will be less, and the demands will be more, so the decisions that we have to make need to be virtually perfect, and very efficient and very smart, but I think  we can do it.”