As with other senior housing operators and real estate investment trusts with senior housing properties, National Health Investors reported that COVID-19 has presented challenges to its business, but positive cases among residents remain at less than 1% across its portfolio, executives reported Tuesday during a first-quarter earnings call.

NHI Chief Investment Officer Kevin Pascoe said it has 37 buildings with one or more active COVID-19 resident cases, which includes 20 senior housing properties and 17 skilled nursing facilities. Of its 192 active resident cases, 55 cases are in senior housing properties, with fewer than five cases per community in assisted living and senior living campuses.

The Murfreesboro, TN-based REIT reported building occupancy rates have been adversely affected by COVID-19 and could significantly decrease if the novel coronavirus results in early resident move-outs and delays in onboarding of new residents. But the REIT has not granted or been asked for any rent deferrals by its operators. 

Bickford Senior Living, Holiday Retirement and Senior Living Communities all experienced downturns in occupancy due to tighter restrictions implemented during the pandemic, Pascoe said. 

Bickford, which manages or operates more than 60 independent living, assisted living and memory care communities throughout the country, saw a slight down tick in move-out rates, but lead volume and tours are down more than 40%, which affects rates of new move-ins and occupancy, he said. Bickford’s average occupancy fell from 87.3% in the first quarter to 85.3% in April, he said. 

Senior Living Communities, which owns and operates luxury retirement communities in six states, saw its first-quarter occupancy drop for 80.4% to 79% in April, Pascoe said. 

Independent living communities saw similar declines in leads, tours and move-ins as assisted living communities, he said. The incidence of COVID-19 resident cases in independent living was limited to two properties. Holiday Retirement, the country’s largest independent living provider, saw its average occupancy drop from 87.3% in the first quarter to 85% in April.

Pascoe said people who need services are shopping for places to move, whereas discretionary shoppers are still leaning toward staying at home. Although operators have found creative ways to market their properties, including virtual tours and FaceTime appointments, as well as people “window shopping” from outside of buildings, he said it’s difficult to find ways to get information to prospective residents.

“I would characterize it as a trickle,” Pascoe said of the response to virtual tours. “There are little glimmers here and there of inquiries or a little more volume, but it’s still really too soon to tell. It’s not meaningful enough to call it a trend yet.”

Eric Mendelsohn, NHI president and CEO, said move-outs have slowed as people “hunkered down” and have an “extra sensitivity to viral health.” 

“It’s produced a result where people are not getting sick and people are remaining healthy, and they’re not moving out as quickly,” Mendelsohn said. “The ‘front door’ is tighter. It’s harder to do a tour, it’s harder to market your building, so move-ins have slowed down. I wish move-outs slowed enough to make move-ins impactful, but it’s still a slow burn.”