A COVID Conversation: Sharon Wilson Geno and Mark Olshaker

11 min read

One Company’s Adjustments

As with every sector of society and level of business, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the affordable housing industry, with owners, managers and front-line workers having to figure out new procedures and ways to adapt. Volunteers of America, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Alexandria, VA, defines itself as a faith-based ministry with nearly 16,000 paid, professional employees dedicated to helping those in need rebuild their lives and reach their full potential. Its mission includes a large portfolio of senior housing and assisted living facilities and services, all of which have been affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

Sharon Wilson Geno, executive vice president and chief operating officer, is an attorney with extensive experience in laws and regulations involving Department of Housing and Urban Development programs and tax incentives and has been a national advocate for affordable and subsidized housing. Staff writer Mark Olshaker is the author of 17 books, including Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, co-written with Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, which predicted a coronavirus pandemic. He and Osterholm, a world-renown epidemiologist, have been chronicling the pandemic in commentaries for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Fortune and Foreign Affairs. Tax Credit Advisor asked Wilson Geno and Olshaker to discuss the adjustments companies in the affordable, senior and assisted-living sectors have had to make as they cope with day-to-day challenges and look to the immediate future.

Mark Olshaker: Knowing your mission, Sharon, I’m interested in how you’ve had to adapt or change in this age of Covid-19 and the new normal.

Sharon Wilson Geno: It’s turned a lot of things on their heads, but at the same time it’s put in front of us issues that have always been there, but now there’s heightened importance on them; particularly the crisis in staffing in senior care is now front and center with us every day. Social distancing in our care facilities means so much more staff; there aren’t people available to provide those services, then if someone tests positive or becomes symptomatic to the virus, they’re out for 14 days and we have to be sure we’re fully staffed and keeping the doors open at the same time.

O: What do you do if you have a staff member come down with the virus? How do you do contact tracing for who that staff member’s been around?

WG: We use the schedules, the systems we have about where they’ve been, what patients they’ve been to, and we look for vectors that are common with the residents. We’ve learned a lot about how we think this virus is transmitted, clearly much more airborne than tactical, and we think there is some connection to ventilation systems.

O: We believe so, too. We’ve always known about small droplet transmission, but the other thing we’ve found in our research is that aerosol particles are an important means, too. Surfaces don’t seem to matter as much as air, food is not an issue, but people are. So, how have you maintained the balance between good safety measures for your residents and not letting them be so lonely that they despair?

WG: That is one of the issues that’s become front and center for us. We’ve always known that social isolation is an issue, particularly in our housing programs. So, we have a lot of service coordinators, a lot of activities. We’ve now seen how much that affects people when they can’t have it. We’ve been doing social-distancing bingo in the hallways, exercise classes from the windows, we’ve been calling once a day, touching base with them. But we really now understand how important that has been to them. Now that some of the communities are opening up a little bit, we’re seeing them want to get out of that experience quickly. We’ve given them all masks and instructed them to wear them in all the common areas and strongly encourage them when they go to the grocery store or out to wear them at all times.

O: When someone has to leave one of the buildings to go to the hospital or healthcare facility, how do you receive them when they come back?

WG: It depends. At some of our facilities we’ve actually added Covid units, with negative air pressure doors and specially trained staff dealing only with Covid patients. We’ve been taking referrals from local hospitals that have asked to participate in the program so they can do some step-downs. We do some pretty significant testing at the other facilities before we let them back in their rooms. They stay isolated for at least 14 days to be sure they’re no longer symptomatic.

O: How do you deal with food service and medication under those circumstances, because the thing that is so staggering to me is that everything we take for granted normally in what’s already a tough job becomes so detail-sensitive.

WG: This gets back to the staffing issue. You have to have staff that know they’re serving folks who’ve been infected, nursing staff that has personal protective equipment (PPE) and staying in PPE most of the day. It’s really trying to be sure we’re keeping those services as separate as possible, and it’s a higher level of service.

O: Getting into those kinds of details, I think, is one of the major challenges.

WG: We’ve known there was this quiet crisis in senior care for the last several years. These are low-wage workers primarily, with high turnover. These are tough jobs and we’re not valuing them enough to bring more people into the system. So, we have a situation where we need this higher level of staffing, we’re demanding more from them. We’ve got folks working double shifts all the time just because they really care about our residents and it’s truly amazing and heroic to watch. But, it’s also a situation where it’s clear as our population of seniors continues to grow in our country, we’ve got to do something about investing in this workforce.

O: That’s exactly my sense of things, Sharon. What are your suggestions?

WG: One of the things we’ve been doing, and we really haven’t been too far down this road, is looking in certain communities where there was a hotel or a restaurant where they’ve been furloughed pretty quickly and encouraging those workers to come train with us. While ours might be a little bit lower wage, it’s more consistent and we do provide benefits. We’re really trying to convince people about the stability of the jobs in our market, and also the tremendous rewards. According to one survey, 88 percent of our healthcare workers believe they are making a positive difference every single day. How often do you find that?

O: Given the need for physical distancing, how do you connect with the residents, particularly the ones who need more care?

WG: We’re doing some things in the hallways where we have our staff walk through and talk to each apartment resident at a safe distance. We started a campaign called “Cheer Mail” that provides an opportunity to send notes to seniors in our buildings, which is great. Just about anything and everything we can think of. But it does also beg the need and use for increased technology and connectivity in our buildings as well. We have a couple of experiments that we’re doing with Alexa and Google Dot and those have gone very well. We’re working with a coalition of similar organizations, working very hard to convince both HUD and the Department of Health and Human Services that this is a critical piece of funding that must be provided for property management success, but also for health and welfare.

O: How has your staffing changed, both in the main office and the management offices?

WG: We made a decision—and not every organization did—to have management staff and service coordinators on-site. I think that was important, and even though they’re isolated in their offices and often communicating through glass or socially distanced with residents, the fact that they’re physically on the property has been a real comfort and helped keep residents in their units. We have to protect our management staff as well and we try to do that.

O: We accept the fact that this may ebb and flow, there are going to be peaks and valleys, but it’s not going away until we either reach herd immunity or have a safe, effective and widely available vaccine. So, can you go along this way for another year or more if you have to?

WG: Scheduling the management team is going to be hard going forward, but I think people are beginning to recognize that we can figure it out. We do need some time in the office to make deals work, connect with each other, to be sure we’re on the same page, or we’re going to have a lot more inefficiency.

O: Are you just trying to maintain things, or are you actually moving forward on new deals, future development, anything like that?

WG: That’s a great question. For the first month or two, we just all thought we needed to get through it and get over it. Now, we’ve got these protocols pretty well set up. We’re moving a new strategic plan that’s going to be implemented on July 1. We’ve had teams meet virtually to put together the implementation plan. Today, I’m trying to finish a $290 million budget. We have to get back to the business of being sure we’re moving our pipeline forward, because like you said, this is our new normal. Let’s figure out how we keep doing our work.

O: Can you talk about your new strategic plan?

WG: Oh, this is like my favorite topic! We passed the plan in February before the pandemic hit. But the goals fit well into what we think is going to be the post-Covid world. They’re integrating housing and healthcare. We thought of them separately for a long time, and we knew we needed to bring them together. As a faith-based organization, we have to look at the whole person. It’s not just housing; it’s not just the service. We have to look at their spiritual well-being, emotional well-being, and know how they fit into a broader community, so that’s another aspect of our strategic plan.

One part is cultivating partnerships. We are all in this together and can’t do it alone. The need for innovation is going to continue to increase and none of the nonprofit organizations have the resources and venture capital to invest in all of these areas, so we need to work together and find the technology platforms and the best strategies that we can collectively and then share them with each other so we can all serve this important population.

O: As a faith-based organization, with all of the politics we’ve seen on both sides, do you see any conflict between faith and science?

WG: Absolutely not. People have different views according to their faith perspectives. Volunteers of America is a nondenominational church administrative service and a service can’t happen effectively without science. So, I think we see these two things as absolutely integral and connected.

O: Sharon, has this public health wakeup call expanded or broadened your outlook in any way?

WG: I’ve always known there was a need to double down and move with much greater speed on what we’ve been doing, particularly with the integration of housing and healthcare. We need to scale this stuff and be sure that each and every one of our buildings has connectivity, telehealth opportunities, as well as clinical capacity, really working on the preventative side of health for seniors. We need to make that available and do it a whole lot faster.

I’ll also give a shout-out to the incredible workers we have. I’ve seen things in the last several months that were absolutely heroic. People rise to the occasion, and I encourage people that are looking at career paths to look at this one. It’s incredibly rewarding. This is a growing field and I encourage anyone interested to come take a look.

Story Contact:
Sharon Wilson Geno