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Geriatric nurse practitioner and researcher Ashley Ritter, APRN, PhD, started a campaign early in the pandemic to promote factual information regarding COVID-19.

Two-and-a-half years later, that effort continues. But Ritter says the work has transitioned to educating society — including older adults and their caregivers — about risk reduction.

Ritter is CEO of Dear Pandemic, an interdisciplinary team of researchers and clinicians that started using social media essays in March 2020 to educate the public on how to navigate COVID-19 information. She also is the director of research for NewCourtland, a nonprofit provider of health, housing and social services to older adults in the Philadelphia area.

She shared the evolution of her messaging during a LeadingAge members call Wednesday.

Risk reduction

Ritter said her goal from the start of the pandemic was to provide practical and actionable information relatable to everyday life, whether it was working with senior living communities and affordable senior housing providers to protect older adults and their caregivers or through social media posts to the general public. 

She said older adults — and society in general — have shared pandemic experiences such as fearing to leave the house, “live and let live” feelings, and loss and trauma.

She said she strives to help older adults strike a balance. Seniors shouldn’t let a worldwide pandemic cramp their style and, therefore, should preserve existing routines, Ritter said. They also should talk about what’s important and how to achieve their goals while staying safe, she added.

With the rise of COVID variants — especially the more contagious BA.5 variant — Ritter said that adopting layers of protection creates better conditions to slow the spread and risk of infection. Masking, social distancing and vaccination are among the risk reduction measures she endorses.

“A mask goes a really long way in helping to decrease the risk of transmission of COVID,” Ritter emphasized, adding that a high-quality N95 or KN95 mask is optimal. “If you’re going to rock a mask, rock a good one.”

Vaccination commitment

In her role as an embedded nurse scientist at NewCourtland, Ritter said, she has combined her research knowledge with practical day-to-day knowledge of workers caring for older adults to come up with innovative solutions for communities during the pandemic.

In May 2021, NewCourtland’s skilled nursing facility was one of the first to adopt COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. The policy rollout was successful because it involved all levels of the organization from the beginning, she said.

Along with creating a safe space for employees to ask questions, the organization held educational sessions and opened up its vaccination clinics to families of staff members, including children, parents and siblings. The organization continues to offer vaccinations on its campus for staff, residents and their families, Ritter said.

“We are invested in vaccination and made it a community activity,” she explained.