Guest Commentary: Assisted Living Communities Have Been Left Behind on COVID-19 Funding

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The past year has challenged us all. For caregivers working in assisted living communities and our peers in health care, it can be a struggle to put into words what our staff, residents and our families have endured in order to stay safe during the pandemic. We know that elected leaders are working hard to provide relief for those hit hardest, but assisted living communities have been left behind so far. The American Rescue Plan provided trillions of dollars of much needed federal COVID relief — but assisted living communities were not included. As lawmakers in Olympia finalize the COVID relief funding in the state budget, we ask that they not forget those who provide care for seniors in assisted living.

I am the administrator and registered nurse for Cooks Hill Manor Assisted Living here in Centralia. I joined the staff as administrator in late February 2020 and could never have imagined what it would take for all of us to come together to protect the health and safety of our community. We have all experienced heartache and the stress of positive COVID tests in our community, but the residents of Cooks Hill Manor have been mostly spared from the worst outcomes. One-hundred percent of our residents are now vaccinated, though the work to uphold safety will continue long past the end of the pandemic.

Cooks Hill Manor currently is home to 42 residents — in Washington, 26,300 seniors reside in assisted living. We have 35 people on staff who, no matter their title, work every day to provide care to residents. I tell my team that while I’m only in the building five days a week, I’m on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This has been especially true during the pandemic.

When the order went out to shelter in place, we shut down our dining room and began providing meals to residents in their individual rooms. This was necessary in order to contain any potential spread of the virus — but it also meant buying mountains of disposable plastic serving containers, utensils and the tools to distribute warm, nourishing food three times a day. With this also came PPE and new cleaning chemicals to sanitize against COVID-19. Our team never hesitates to go above and beyond in protecting the safety of our residents. But PPE, one-time-use food containers, working double-shifts to make sure that every resident is cared for and spending time to effectively sanitize do not come without a cost.

In Washington, assisted living communities have lost $186,594,088 since the beginning of the pandemic. And many of these costs are probably here to stay as we implement hard-learned lessons from the pandemic.

I have spent my entire life as a caregiver. Before serving in assisted living, I worked as a psychiatric nurse and have worked in emergency rooms. I am proud of my family’s legacy of service. My husband works in law enforcement, my father served as a firefighter in Longview and my sister is an X-ray technician.

My family’s story of service and blue-collar work is not uncommon, especially when it comes to providing care to seniors — 31,550 Washingtonians are employed in assisted living communities.

And as we all age, not everyone has the benefit of being able to afford the care they need on their own — 85% of our residents rely on Medicaid. But even though we serve the same vulnerable populations as many of our peers in health care, assisted living communities have not yet been able to access the same level of COVID relief.

The state House and Senate have both proposed their respective budgets for the next two years of state spending, including billions of dollars in funding specific to COVID relief efforts. Encouragingly, the proposed budget in the House provides COVID relief for assisted living communities alongside our peers. But the Senate’s proposed budget does not. This means that pandemic relief is once again going to be the subject of intense negotiation for lawmakers.

On behalf of my residents, staff and our families, I ask that our elected leaders remember us when adopting the final budget by including the pandemic relief detailed in the House budget.

We keep hearing that help is on the way. And like so many, we just haven’t seen it yet.

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Tammy Jones is the administrator of Cooks Hill Manor Assisted Living in Centralia, where she also serves as the registered nurse. She has proudly called Longview home for more than 50 years.

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