Phoebe Ministries Announces COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement for Staff

Phoebe Ministries, based in Allentown, announced Monday that it will require employees across the senior living organization to receive COVID-19 vaccination by October 15, 2021 as a condition of employment.

With communities in Berks, Bucks, Lancaster, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton and Union counties, this requirement applies to all of Phoebe Ministries’ employees. The policy will recognize authorized medical and religious exemptions.

Since federal approval of the first vaccines in late 2020, Phoebe Ministries has continued to encourage residents, staff, volunteers, and visitors to get the vaccines, which are proven to be safe and effective. Already, the majority of Phoebe Ministries’ staff have received COVID-19 vaccinations.

“As a healthcare provider, we are duty-bound to protect the vulnerable population we serve,” said Scott Stevenson, president and CEO of Phoebe Ministries. “Guided by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is clear that community-wide immunization is a crucial next step to overcoming this pandemic. This decision serves the best interests of everyone in our Phoebe community and beyond.”

Phoebe Ministries offers staff easy access to vaccinations through Phoebe Pharmacy, its comprehensive pharmaceutical provider serving thousands of long-term care, personal care, behavioral health and independent living residents. Phoebe Pharmacy is equipped to vaccinate staff members at all of its communities.

Zoom, other marketing tools help elder-care industry reach clients

For senior living communities with additional services, 2020 was off to a strong start. During January and February interest was up, as were inquires and commitments to area senior living, congregate care campuses – those communities offering a range of services from independent living to assisted and skilled nursing care levels.

That was pre-coronavirus.

Interviews with administrators at two independent/nursing facilities — Fellowship Community in Whitehall Township, and The Village at LifeQuest in Milford Township, Bucks County — found similar patterns. A drop in interest once the pandemic hit, but less so for skilled care.

Fellowship Community in Whitehall Township has seen a drop in recruitment, but demand for skilled care remains strong. PHOTO/FILES –

Prior to Covid-19 and the post-holiday season lull, The Village at LifeQuest in Milford Township, Bucks County, “had a steady flow of folks coming into the building,” said Sally Prior, Village chief operating officer.

Prior expects interested in the housing arrangements offered in the rural pocket of Upper Bucks County to tick up, as creative marketing efforts begin to pay off.

Congregate care senior living communities provide a range of services, from independent apartments with some shared amenities, such as full kitchen areas and dining rooms; concierge services such as cleaning and laundry; and catering services to assisted living and 24-hour skilled nursing care facilities. 

Village marketing staff is reaching out through weekly Constant Contact emails to its prospect mailing list and industry health care partners. They’re using Zoom in new ways for virtual education, entertainment – like bingo and bake-less cooking activities and connecting family and friends. 

Those “hot leads” who were near to signing before Covid-19, are receiving “survival care packages” featuring tasty treats, hand sanitizer, word puzzles, masks and other essential amenities delivered to their homes, said Dee Jones, administrator at The Village.

“We have one [new resident] that will be moving in shortly, for whom [the care package] worked really well,” Jones said.

Jones said marketing pivot points include virtual Zoom meet-ups for happy hour times, lunch with family members, no-bake cooking activities, virtual bingo or educational times with noted physicians.

It’s one more way to stay connected in a time of social distancing.

“Instead of having people come here, were using Zoom and virtual technology,” Jones said.

The Village is also promoting virtual tours of places like The Philadelphia Zoo, along with museums around the world currently that are opening their galleries and collections through virtual tours. 

The New York Times recently reported one-third of all Covid-19 related deaths are occurring in nursing homes among residents and health care workers. But locally a different perspective may be taking shape. Set apart, with strict medical and health hygiene protocols in place and the ability to isolate vulnerable populations, interest in senior living communities may be recovering.

“It is the entire lifestyle in the building and the landscape. We have had family members tell us it has been safer for their parents,” Prior said. 

The Village restricted visitors two weeks before Gov. Tom Wolf required care homes to do so. As of a May 12 phone interview, Prior reported the facility remains Covid-free with “hour-by-hour vigilance.” 

While the Village has switched to virtual tours rather than in-person visits of its facilities, it is still taking admissions. 

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic Fellowship Community in Whitehall Township also experienced strong interest and prospective customer sign-ups. Fellowship is a Christian, faith-based retirement and care campus offering independent living arrangements, personal care, nursing care, rehabilitation services and memory support. 

“As soon as we had to restrict visitation and the pandemic heated up, things slowed down for independent living and personal care,” said Mary Kay McMahon, Fellowship president and CEO. However, the demand for skilled nursing care, which is more need-based, continues. 

The 50-acre campus includes 121 skilled-nursing beds, 165 personal-care beds and 151 independent-living units, including apartments and townhomes, McMahon said.

The pandemic has forced Fellowship to revamp its marketing efforts and leverage technology to better connect with families and prospects. Video updates are regularly posted to Fellowship’s website and Facebook pages to provide enhanced communication and transparency to residents’ family members and loved ones. 

She said making better more consistent use of social media channels for advertising services, including Facebook and Instagram, would be huge, “because that is where people are spending their time and getting their news,” McMahon said.

Early preparation at Fellowship included the construction of a separate Covid unit, and a separate specific hall for Covid-19 patients.  Staff received specialized training in handling Covid-19 patients, and McMahon said these decisions were essential to accommodate cases that would arise. 

In early April when we got our first positive Covd-19 case the tide turned,” she said. “Everybody is going to think twice about moving into a senior living community if you have positive Covid cases.”

Fellowship’s Covid-19 cases were located in personal care and skilled nursing, and they are in isolation.

Even with Covid-19 top of mind, McMahon said, many “very courageous people” have opted to move to independent living communities because they felt there was more security there.

Fellowship patents suffering with Covid-19 in personal care are now in the recovery phase, McMahon said. Since March, Fellowship reported 36 positive cases, and the trajectory for personal care is “over the hump, and they are all heading into recovery,” she said.

“We are on the decline and were able to contain it. We’ve had six deaths, and that is the hardest part.  Our residents in this [segment] are very compromised. They have a lot of health issues and are advanced in age, McMahon said.

Fellowship is making skilled nursing admission decisions based upon whether or not appropriate room could be made to isolate new residents as needed. 

Persistence and tenacity in the face of hardship are not new to those in their golden years. “They are very resilient,” Prior said. “This generation has lived through [world] wars and the Great Depression, and they step up. They masked right away, they understand the severity of it, and they want to do their part.” 

State AG. Josh Shapiro launches criminal negligence probe at Pa. nursing homes

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is investigating several nursing homes for criminal neglect of patients and residents.

While acknowledging the work nursing homes are doing during the pandemic, Shapiro said homes that mistreat seniors will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The attorney general’s care-dependent neglect team is reviewing allegations of mistreatment of residents for evidence they failed to provide for their health, safety and welfare.

Shapiro did not identify the homes under investigation.

“Protecting seniors and our most vulnerable in the care of others, is one of the core responsibilities of my office and we’re stepping up to protect older Pennsylvanians during this crisis,” Shapiro said. “Active criminal investigations are already underway and we encourage people to share relevant complaints with us on our special tip line so we can best protect people in nursing homes.”

A conversation with Shari VanderGast

Shari VanderGast – Submitted

Shari VanderGast, 53, is senior vice president of Diakon Senior Living and Diakon Child, Family and Community Ministries. She has been with the company for four years.

Prior to joining Diakon, she served as president and CEO of Central Behavioral Health in Montgomery County. She also has worked extensively in health care and human services, serving in a variety of executive, operational and compliance roles.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s degree from Columbia University, and a law degree from Temple University.

Outside of work she serves as the vice president of the Palisades School Board and on the board of the Palisades Community Foundation. She enjoys spending time with her sons, one a student at Temple University, the other at Kutztown University. She enjoys watching her son at KU perform in the university’s marching and symphonic bands. She also serves as field instructor for master’s-level students at Kutztown.

LVB: What have been some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries & Diakon Child Family & Community Ministries?

Shari VanderGast: We are continually challenged to recruit and retain talented, committed and passionate staff to work with those we serve. We are always seeking people with a desire to serve others, including here in the Lehigh Valley. Our biggest opportunity is to find new ways to serve older persons, children and families whose needs are changing — whether they need or prefer services at home, in the community or in one of our senior living communities.

LVB: How does Diakon directly stimulate the local economy? How does it get involved with the local community?

VanderGast: Across our footprint in eastern and central Pennsylvania, as well as central Maryland, we employ nearly 1,900 people. In the Lehigh Valley, we employ around 500 people, including those at The Lutheran Home at Topton, Luther Crest in Allentown and our child and family programs including Diakon Adoption & Foster Care. As a health care and human service provider, we employ the services of other businesses, from landscapers to our local hospitals and physician practices. We are members of the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce. Our community benefit—what we call “the good we do beyond the good we set out to do” — totaled $21.14 million in 2018, with at least $6 million of that in this region. We provide about $1.5 million a month in charitable care. We also are very involved with local colleges, universities and vocational programs, providing internships and hiring their graduates.

LVB: What is your guiding philosophy as a business leader?

VanderGast: Hire the best staff and really listen to them. Our staff members have great ideas and a real passion for service, and I’m so grateful for the incredible work they do every day. I feel blessed to work with an exceptional team of health care and human services staff who care deeply about the people and families we serve.

LVB: If you could change one thing about your industry, what would it be?

VanderGast: Health care and human service jobs can be very stressful. We serve people who are ill or who need supportive care and services, and who are often stressed by their personal circumstances. Health care and human service providers need to be creative in finding new and meaningful ways to care for, reward and recognize our staff for the compassion and caring they show to our residents and clients every day.

Rating changes drop nursing-home quality scores

A major update to a national rating system for nursing homes has had a trickledown effect on the ratings of Pennsylvania facilities, one that could affect their ability to attract residents.

Late last month, 220 Pennsylvania nursing homes slipped in their rankings under what is known as the Nursing Home Compare Tool, compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency that oversees the Medicare program and helps states administer Medicaid.

The declines were not the fault of the nursing homes, but instead a symptom of what may be the largest update to the comparison tool since it was created in 2012.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, ranks nursing homes based on staffing levels, health inspections and quality of care. Nursing homes get between one and five stars, with the rating made public on CMS’ website and used by consumers, providers and hospitals to find the best nursing homes in a region.

A CMS spokesperson said the department continues to make changes to the five-star rating system in an effort to incentivize facilities to continue to improve the quality of care they offer.

“In order to continue to improve quality, we need to constantly evaluate and enhance our expectations, so that facilities continue to strive to achieve better performance and higher ratings, thereby improving quality and outcomes for residents,” said the spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous.

To alert consumers of the change, CMS has emphasized the update on the Nursing Home Compare website and has alerted other agencies that work with seniors looking for care.

Critics, however, said the most recent update could still confuse consumers, who may not understand that a nursing home dropped in rating not because of a change in quality but because the goalposts were moved.

“These changes would indicate that 33 percent of Pennsylvania nursing homes became worse overnight,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, a Harrisburg-based group representing providers of senior care. “The data tells a different story: Nursing homes have made significant improvements in quality of care and staff have never been more dedicated to their residents.”

Consumers themselves have been quiet over the change, according to Robyn Grant, director of public policy and advocacy for the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

That silence could mean they have not noticed the changes, according to Grant.

“My sense is that consumers research the ratings of a facility at the time they are looking for a facility, but don’t necessarily go back after that and would, therefore, not see that the ratings had changed,” she said.

Nonetheless, the group supports updates to the rating system as a way to ensure the ratings remain helpful to consumers, she said.

The ratings slide has been a nationwide problem, with a third of the county’s nursing homes losing a star overnight, according to Lori Mayer, vice president of investor relations, brand management and marketing communications at Genesis HealthCare, a senior care provider based in California. The company operates homes in the Philadelphia area as well as the Hamilton Arms Center senior home in Lancaster Township, Lancaster County.

“We are disappointed that recent changes to the Five-Star Rating System by CMS have resulted in many centers receiving a lower star rating — even though nothing has changed in terms of the quality of care provided,” Mayer said. “That’s confusing for families and residents who need simple, clear information.”

Changes to the CMS rating system included enacting separate measures for short-term and long-term residents, rather than one rating for both. CMS also reduced the number of days that a facility’s registered nurse can be off the premises.

In addition, the agency tweaked its formula for awarding stars, making it harder for nursing homes to earn the same number as before. The changes are based on overall quality improvements at nursing homes nationwide.

The last tweak was in 2015. But going forward, the agency will make changes every six months, steadily raising the bar for nursing homes so they show consistent improvement, according to the CMS spokesperson.

The ratings are an important tool for senior homes and have an effect on many facets of senior care, including contracts with insurance companies and recommendations from hospitals. Shamberg said that the associations’ members fear the ratings change could cause insurers and hospitals to refer patients to other facilities with better ratings.

“For our membership this is worrisome and can have a real effect on their ability to admit residents,” he said.

CMS said the website for the rating system also contains inspection reports for each facility. The agency noted that hospitals and insurers should review the reports to see if a rating change was the result of an inspection or an update to the system.

Crafting a system to accurately rate the quality of nursing homes is challenging, according to Douglas Motter, president of East Hempfield Township-based Homestead Village, a senior living facility with 495 residents and five stars on Nursing Home Compare.

Motter said that while five-star ratings are usually indicative of a high-quality home, minor problems in a facility’s annual inspection or changes to the system can keep a quality facility at three stars.

The ratings also don’t take into account the experiences of consumers, according to Motter.

“The challenge is that the consumers don’t have a voice,” he said. “It’s based on annual inspection and self-reported data. It doesn’t measure the taste of food, how caring the staff is or friendliness of the home.”