Edison Neighborhood

The Heritage Community of Kalamazoo prepares a new COVID-19 isolation and treatment unit

The oldest care center for senior citizens in the city of Kalamazoo may lay claim to being the first ready to fight off the coronavirus.
The Heritage Community of Kalamazoo, a nonprofit senior living community established in 1945, began preparing the families of its 400 residents for the fight in late February and closed its facilities to all outside visitors on March 12.
That was two days after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency across Michigan and one day before she began prohibiting large gatherings of people in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
In the fight against the pandemic, the Heritage Community also appears to be ready for a sustained battle. It may be the first care center in the area to have created an isolation and treatment unit specifically to care for any of its 400 residents who might contract the sickness, though none have to date. Working with GMB Architects and Engineers, Heritage converted a 6,330-square-foot portion of its rehabilitation services wing into a center that can safely treat victims of the outbreak.

Jay Prince, president and chief executive officer of the Heritage CommunityThe conversion was conceived on March 29 by Jay Prince, president and chief executive officer of the Heritage Community, and Paul Barber, vice president of operations for Heritage Community. Construction was completed on Friday, April 3.  

The $131,000 project was partially covered by a $165,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Urgent Relief Fund. The foundation is among a number of community philanthropic agencies collaborating to make emergency funding available to nonprofit organizations that are experiencing increased expenses during the COVID-19 response.
About $34,000 of the Urgent Relief Fund Grant is being used to grant stipends to help lower-wage workers at Heritage and to award mini-grants to workers to help them with such things as rent, car payments, or other unplanned financial troubles caused by the coronavirus. According to a Heritage spokesman, the balance is helping to cover personal protection equipment and supplies for Heritage workers and cover additional pay and benefits for the team members who will staff the new isolation and treatment unit.
“Our team has taken the COVID-19 situation seriously from day one,” Prince says. “We saw what was happening around the country and listened to what was occurring in other states.”

The accuracy of their prediction for the need to act quickly can be seen locally. Of the 19 deaths attributed to COVID-19, all have been over the age of 70 and the average age of those who have died is 79, according to the Kalamazoo County Health Department in its 3 p.m. May 3 report. None were residents at the Heritage Community.
Prince says his leadership team knew it needed to take a proactive approach.
“We have people at all levels of care – assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, and rehabilitation services,” he says. “… As a campus, we have various residents and various places in their healthcare journey. The mission is to care for them for the rest of their lives.”
When COVID-19 is thrown into the mix, he said it takes commitment and compassion to safeguard a very vulnerable population (those who are weakened by age and by pre-existing health conditions) from an easily-contracted disease that appears to be more deadly to people over age 65. The average age of Heritage residents is 84.

Prince says the complexity of the Heritage campus (six main structures on 27 acres), requires him and his staff to use the best practices and protocols to keep their residents safe.  He said he attributes the virus-free atmosphere thus far to being proactive, having a responsive leadership team, “and making sure that we are following the best practices coming from the CDC ( U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).”
Prince says, “We eliminated visits early on. We also started providing personal protection equipment to our staff early on (masks as well as other items). We were one of the early folks that implemented screening of anybody coming into the buildings.”
That means staff, including maintenance and other workers, have their temperatures taken twice a day. A high-temperature reading and a fever are outward signs that a person may have contracted COVID-19. The facility also did its own search for workers and associates who had traveled to places where the virus has been prevalent.
The community has a staff of 400, many of whom are direct caregivers. Those include registered nurses, servers, cooks, and housekeepers. Prince says they are on the front line and are supported by security people, receptionists, and others who all have goals and responsibilities in helping to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Eliminating visitations has affected residents’ family members, some of whom are used to once- or twice-a-week visits. And one man who has visited his wife every day in the memory care facility for quite some time. But Price says there has been no resistance to the idea of curtailing visits because he and his staff have been communicating with family members about the idea since February. Prince says staff and family members understand the elevated health risk COVID-19 poses to people over 65.

“Window visits” have become a regular thing at the Heritage Community of Kalamazoo, located at 2400 Portage St. in Kalamazoo.
He says online visits via Skype and telephone, and “window visits” have become a regular thing. Window visits include standing just outside a resident’s window to see them and chat with them. Staff facilitates those visits. In-person visits are being allowed in the event a resident is gravely ill, Prince said. In those cases, the visitor is outfitted with proper protective gear.
Among other things the isolation center has been designed to isolate the flow of air into and out of the unit and to channel how people move through the unit. It is a conversion of part of the community’s Harold & Grace Upjohn Care & Rehabilitation Center. It has nine rooms that will each be used initially as private rooms. Each room can accommodate two people, however, and may be used that way if the need arises, Prince says.
“We had to really proactively think about the best case scenarios to the worst-case scenarios,” Prince says of COVID-19. “Our team really thought about those areas and thought about what that really meant.”

Seen here are some of the nine rooms that are part of the new isolation and treatment unit inside the Heritage Community of Kalamazoo.
He says the result was the need to design a unit specifically for people who have COVID, “a specialized unit for residents, if and when they contracted COVID. We needed to treat them in the best way possible.”
Working with other healthcare organizations, the isolation unit could be called on to treat seniors who are not Heritage Community residents, but Prince says residents are the priority.

“We want to make sure that our residents know that there is going to be a bed available for them,” Prince says. “The primary goal here is our residents. Our mission. We have to honor our commitment.”
Prince says various members of his staff have volunteered and are training to work in the isolation and treatment unit.
“They love the people they are serving with all their hearts and they’re making sacrifices,” Prince says of the staff in general. “Just like we are, they’re being extra careful and vigilant when they go home. Their desire is to make sure their residents are taken care of. … This is a very fluid situation and you have to have a team that’s nimble and able to react very quickly. It really comes down to the staff.”

Photos courtesy of the Heritage Community.
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.