NEW YORK – Paul Bricker has dealt with enemies before, but never quite like this.
Bricker was a colonel in the U.S. Army for 28 years, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. So he is very familiar with trying to survive in a hostile environment and dealing with insurgent threats on a daily basis.
But since retiring and going “wheels up out of Kandahar” back in 2012, he now finds himself in a different kind of combat.
For three years, Bricker has been chief operating officer of Knollwood, a retirement community in Washington, D.C. for military service members and their families. In normal times, overseeing 270 residents and 170 full-time employees would be challenging enough.
But lately, Bricker has been drawing on all his battlefield know-how to protect the people under his care. This time, the enemy is microscopic, highly contagious, and potentially lethal – especially to the nation’s elderly.
“The lessons I learned in Iraq and Afghanistan have been key,” says Bricker. “I never thought I would be in this kind of battle, but we are fighting with everything we have.”
Think about it, and pretty much every family in America has become a military operation. On a daily basis, you have to think about issues like logistics and supplies; getting safely from Point A to Point B; and protecting yourself against an enemy that may not always be apparent.
It is a particular challenge for nursing homes, which have been Ground Zero for many new coronavirus infection outbreaks – not only in the U.S., but abroad in countries like Canada and Belgium. That is because of highly vulnerable populations – elderly, with less immune resistance, and often struggling with multiple health issues at the same time. Add to that frequent contacts with health workers who might unknowingly pass the virus between residents, and you have an ideal COVID-19 breeding ground.
In fact, Knollwood lost nine residents in the spring, and their average age was 91.
LIFE ON LOCKDOWN
When Bricker and his colleagues saw the full extent of the threat, their military training kicked into gear. They locked down the community with security checkpoints. They set up a command center, combining operations staff with medical personnel, to process the latest information and data about the threat they faced. They strictly followed CDC health guidelines on matters like mask use and social distancing.
Perhaps most importantly, they instituted 100% testing, surmising early on – correctly, as it turned out – that virus transmission could happen via asymptomatic people.
“I’ll never forget” the day they got their first universal test results back, Bricker says: 18 residents and 11 employees were positive, which had them scrambling to move people into private rooms and send affected staffers home.
Testing was a key turning point, but it did not come without a fight. Both the city and Walter Reed Medical Center declined their request for help in universal testing, which forced Bricker to locate a partner elsewhere. He found it in the firm LabCorp, which has since processed over 3,000 tests for staffers and residents.
One of those residents, as it turns out, is the nation’s former Assistant Surgeon General. Retired Rear Admiral Julia Plotnick lives in the “independent” part of the Knollwood complex (there are also other levels, like assisted living and memory care).
In her government role, Plotnick used to deal with health issues around the world, from famines to AIDS to Ebola. But this time, the health crisis came to her own doorstep.
“This will be the New Normal until we get a vaccine,” says Plotnick, who has lived at Knollwood for almost seven years. “There was a lot of anxiety at first, but I think they have handled it really well. And I’m happy to be here, rather than all alone in an apartment, trying to figure out this crisis for myself.”
Knollwood’s military-style response provides a glimpse of what the future might look like for retirement communities around the country. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic, other health threats will come to the nation’s elderly, and this kind of hypervigilance could be a model for how to operate under siege.
The proof is in the pudding: As the rest of the country has been roiled by the virus, Knollwood has not had a positive test for a resident since May 1.
“In the military when you’re up against a wall, your mission is to get around it or over it or through it,” says Bricker. “Our mission is to protect our residents – and we’re going to do whatever it takes.”
Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum