Seniors at Chapparal House in Berkeley. Photo: Chapparal House

A day after Berkeley officials announced the first case of a patient with the COVID-19, or coronavirus, senior centers and residences are taking extra precautions to protect their elderly clients from the disease.

Chaparral House, a senior community at 1309 Allston Way in central Berkeley, has 40 residents, most of them elderly and frail. The nurses there have implemented Chapparral’s “active infection control policy,” to prevent the spread of the virus, a respiratory disease that is especially hard on older adults, as well as on people with pre-existing conditions such as pneumonia.

Chaparral House is following the advice and recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Health Care Association, and city and state health departments, said KJ Page, Chaparral administrator and a registered nurse.

“We have hand sanitizers all over the building,” Page said. “People [residents, staff, guests] are encouraged to use this and to wash their hands. We’re telling people if they have cold symptoms not to come – staff and guests.”

Seniors have a higher mortality rate from the COVID-19 virus than younger people. Eyes and hearts around the globe have been focused on Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, a skilled nursing center experiencing a devastating cluster of COVID-19 cases. The virus has led to the death of 10 Life Care residents so far. Epidemiologists are urgently working to understand this localized outbreak, in the realm of the larger epidemic.

The staff at Chapparal House is asking anyone who is sick to refrain from visiting, said Page. The residence offers to help family or loved ones visit residents via Skype, FaceTime or WhatsApp. In some cases, it encourages outside visits, with fresh air.

“We’re asking people to leave if we think they have symptoms, whether they think they do or not,” Page said. This includes visitors and staff. “At this time, I’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Music recital at Berkeley’s Chaparral House, a skilled nursing community in Berkeley. Like other senior residences, Chaparral is practicing extra vigilance to protect residents and staff from Coronavirus. Photo:  Chaparral House
Music recital at Berkeley’s Chaparral House, a skilled nursing community in Berkeley. Like other senior residences, Chaparral is practicing extra vigilance to protect residents and staff from Coronavirus. Photo:  Chaparral House

So far, Chaparral hasn’t had to send anyone home, she said. And so far, activities continue as usual.

Page’s basic advice: “People shouldn’t panic because that weakens their immune system. Wash your hands, rest, don’t listen to the news.” And when you wash your hands, she adds, make sure it’s thorough: “Sing the happy birthday song twice. . or the alphabet song once, because most people don’t wash their hands long enough.”

Berkeley is home to numerous senior residencies, from nursing centers to apartment complexes. Many older adults also live at home. According to 2012-2013 census bureau data, 24% of Berkeley residents were 45- to 64-years-old, and 11% were 65 years or older.

Satellite Affordable Housing Associates (SAHA) operates 75 buildings in Northern California, including 22 in Berkeley, eight of which are for seniors. The city contracts with SAHA to provide Section 8 or subsidized low-income housing for some units in some of the buildings.  All of the facilities are private apartments for independent living.

“People are nervous, people are worried,” since the rapid spread of COVID-19, said Cristi Ritschel, SAHA’s vice president of resident services.

Like other senior residences, SAHA is following all of the CDC coronavirus guidelines, she said.

Hand sanitizer is everywhere. Areas that get touched a lot such as elevator buttons, intercoms and door handles are disinfected often, Ritschel said.

Updated CDC COVID-19 fact sheets are given to all residents, and posted around the building. Staff are told to stay home if they have cold symptoms. Residents with symptoms are encouraged to stay in their apartments. Staff are answering questions, and sending people to credible sources of information.

“We’re managing people’s fear as best we can,” Ritschel said, “We’re redirecting them to reliable sources such as the DCD. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Some seniors who live independently have said they are frustrated — and scared — by how little information is available about the coronavirus in Berkeley. The city only released the sketchiest details about the infected individual — that he or she returned from Italy on Feb. 23, is in their mid-30s, and mostly self-quarantined until going to a medical professional on Monday, March 2.

“The city has to give more information to protect others,” said Jackie Blossom-Garcia, 65, who lives with her husband, 75. “Seniors are at more risk. If we are given some of the basics about where this person went, [we] wouldn’t feel so fearful.”

If she knew what part of Berkeley the patient had visited she could avoid that area, she said.

Advice for older adults and/or their caregivers, family and friends:

This information is culled primarily from the CDC and the American Health Care Association. It is in addition to the critical prevention measures of washing hands often, covering your mouth when you cough, not touching your face or nose, and staying home when sick.

  • Do not visit senior friends or family members if you feel sick.
  • Do not visit senior residences or facilities if you feel sick.
  • It’s important to check in with senior friends or family members often now, so they don’t feel isolated and so you can see how they’re feeling. If you feel sick, do this by telephone.
  • You can also connect via Skype or video-chat if he or she uses this technology.
  • Ask the staff of a senior residence to help you stay in touch with a resident if you feel sick.
  • If you live in a residence or facility, don’t visit sick friends or family, connect with them through the phone.
  • If you or a friend or family member feels sick (especially with symptoms of the cold or flu) call a doctor or advice nurse before going to the hospital. If you feel very sick call 911.
  • A medical expert is the best person to tell you how to get treatment if you feel sick, based on your symptoms.
  • Again, if you or a loved one feel very sick such as having difficulty breathing call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
  • If you are a senior or helping an older adult, keep doctor and hospital contact numbers handy.
  • Face masks are not recommended for the general public as a way to prevent people from getting the virus. Unless a mask is fit professionally, it offers little protection. Masks can create a false sense of security.
  • Face masks are needed for healthcare workers.
  • If you know any older adults who live alone and don’t have strong social support, reach out to them now to check in. Social support is healthy.
  • Fresh air is healthy. The person-to-person contagious reach of the virus is estimated at 6 feet, which means you must be within six feet of an infected person to catch it from their cough or sneeze.
  • The situation is changing rapidly. Stay updated by checking the Centers for Disease Control website, the Alameda County Health Department, Berkley’s Public Health Department, or the California Health Department website.

Update March 5 — comments from Tanya Bustamante, manager of the city’s Aging Services Division

Aging services oversees Berkeley’s senior centers, among other programs.

“As you can imagine, our seniors are anxious,” Bustamante said. “However, many continue to attend our senior centers as we offer a variety of activities at our centers everyday, as well as a hot lunch.” Senior center members and staff are advised to wash their hands frequently, and cover their coughs and sneezes, she said. “Additionally my staff are sanitizing front desk counters, restroom door handles, and other frequently touched surfaces at the end of each day.” 

Freelancer Catherine "Kate" Rauch has been contributing to Berkeleyside for several years. Her work as a journalist has encompassed everything from 10 years as a daily news reporter for the East Bay Times,...