Dear Editor:

Chelsea Senior Living operates 21 assisted living residences in New Jersey and New York. During the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, our senior population has been the most vulnerable to sickness and possible death because of pre-existing medical conditions, diminished immune systems, the natural processes of aging and the fast spread of this particular virus. COVID-19 is also ten times more lethal than the flu. We recognized early-on that the Coronavirus would pose an existential threat to our residents because we conduct year-round surveillance against other infectious diseases like the flu, norovirus and pneumonia and are painfully aware of the effects of quarantine and isolation on our population.

Contrary to what officials and bureaucrats at various levels of government have portrayed, an assisted living (AL) residence is not the same as a nursing home. Assisted living communities are homes to older Americans who require assistance with daily activities such as dressing, grooming, making it to meals on time and basic mobility. Our AL residents are generally not bed-bound and do not require full time medical and nursing attention. They come to us as independent men and women, and we strive to facilitate their independence while also keeping them safe and healthy. Residents in our Memory Care areas receive 24/7 support from specially trained staff.

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Our own regulatory agencies, including the NJ and NY Departments of Health, along with local and regional health departments, continue to lump us together with nursing homes. Our industry has become a whipping boy for governmental agencies at the highest levels which are now scapegoating their own lack of action early in the pandemic. Highly publicized lapses in care and high death rates at a very few nursing homes have cast a pall over the entire senior living/senior care industry and sparked knee-jerk responses from politicians and bureaucrats hellbent on showing they suddenly care. These responses include surprise inspections at properties that have suffered high absenteeism among employees, unrealistic new surveillance requirements with no regard to the ability of a community to carry them out, let alone their actual effectiveness, and an overall attitude that we are lax in our care as a default setting.

From the beginning and even today, the long term care industry has been left on its own to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer and testing. We received no support from the New Jersey or New York State Health Departments. Instead, we initiated our own ban on visitation, our own standards for screening employees and our own standards for surveillance and testing of residents. We care for those who are sick. If they become very sick, we get them to the hospital in a timely fashion. Most of our residents and staff who have been hospitalized have recovered. It is a great loss to us when any one of them dies.

The state agencies have been woefully behind on all of it and are now playing catch-up by smacking down on operators as though we are the cause of the disease instead of victims. Chelsea has a 30-year history of caring for senior citizens, first as a nursing home provider and then starting in the late 80s as a pioneer of assisted living. We know how to provide safe and healthy environments for senior citizens. It's tragic that the Coronavirus has become a feared fact of life and that our government, even today, seems unable to respond effectively to the threat. We urge our state departments of health to provide actual solutions to obstacles to care instead of handing out blocks of blame and issuing pointless directives to overwhelmed care staffs.

Sincerely,

Herb Heflich, Chief Executive Officer
Roger Bernier, President and Chief Operating Officer
Chelsea Senior Living