After our story about the aid network by and for residents of the Brandywine Apartments, we heard about “Covid Companions” at The Frontenac and Clarence House apartments (4550 and 4530 Connecticut Avenue).
We spoke to Claire Ruppert, who manages The Frontenac and Clarence House for WC Smith, about the program she created and the steps the buildings and residents are taking to protect against infection – and isolation.
What is your background and how long have you been manager of your buildings?
Those boring summers inoculated me against working in property management… until I found WC Smith. Despite operating in the for-profit realm, the company actively strives to make positive changes in the communities they own, manage, and serve. When I interviewed with the company’s president, John Ritz, he spoke of his roles as both property manager and president in a way that made it clear this was more of a vocation than a job to him. It was immediately evident that the company had heart.
I’ve worked as the manager of The Frontenac in Van Ness for 15 years; I took over management of the neighboring Clarence House in 2011.
How has Covid-19 affected your building?
Covid-19 has changed almost everything. The mind-set has shifted from making the building sociable and communal to preventing community spread of the virus.
- We needed new cleaning products recommended by the EPA and new protocols that included disinfecting high touch areas at least once a day, which means at least twice a day to my ears.
- We needed to suspend non-emergency maintenance to protect staff who could then pass the virus to other residents.
- We had to restrict use of the laundry room by prohibiting more than two residents in the room at a time.
- We closed our rooftop in compliance with Mayor Bowser’s order, and reopened it with restrictions when she amended the order.
- Staff members are wearing masks and gloves and maintaining physical distance from residents and one another.
- Residents ride elevators one at a time and give each other a wide berth passing in hallways.
Initially, residents – especially those with small children – seemed to struggle to find their stride, but at this point, most people seem to be handling restrictions well. What I’ve been most touched by is how appreciative they are of staff. People are thanking us for our service, and a few residents baked us cookies and donated hand-sewn masks.
So far, we’re not aware of any of our residents having tested positive for Covid-19, but several have had to self-quarantine. A few people got sick in March and have since recovered. None exhibited severe enough symptoms to warrant a test. A couple others had been in close contact with someone who was later diagnosed with Covid-19. All self-quarantined responsibly as though they had tested positive.
How do you learn about residents who are self-quarantined or quarantined due to contacts or symptoms?
On March 12th, WC Smith announced that it had established an email hotline for residents to self-report infection with Covid-19 or close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Residents may also contact me or their Covid Companion so that we can alert staff and the corporate office. Should anyone be diagnosed with coronavirus, we are prepared to work with them to provide mail and trash pick-ups and drop-offs, to bring deliveries of food and supplies to their doors, and – if needed – to establish a payment plan that will allow them time to recover from the physical and financial setbacks the virus may have caused them.
One of my biggest concerns is that a resident will not self-report and will not be able to self-quarantine as a result of not accepting help. I started Covid Companions in part because I wanted to communicate to residents that there is no need to conceal symptoms for fear of stigma or because the logistics of quarantining pose too great a challenge; the entire community is eager to assist, management and neighbors alike.
Tell us about Covid Companions and how it evolved.
My residents’ stories – and their offers to volunteer – inspired me to create the Covid Companions program.
Since most of my residents live alone (as I do), and since coronavirus-confusion renders people incapable of seeking medical attention, I needed to figure out how to keep tabs on people, so that, if someone were to become afflicted by confusion, they wouldn’t miss out of potentially life-saving medical attention.
I researched how apartment building managers in other countries addressed the multiple challenges presented by the coronavirus. The most useful information I found came from English speaking reporters who had witnessed the coronavirus outbreak in China. In Wuhan, building managers went from apartment to apartment daily, dressed in full PPE to monitor and document residents’ temperatures and other symptoms, including confusion.
It occurred to me that residents could contact one another by phone or email daily, sharing new symptoms and concerns with each other freely. Considering the large number of offers to volunteer I had received from my residents, I suspected they would participate in significant numbers.
How many residents are participating?
So far, we have 72 participants! In a community of 208 apartments, that’s a higher rate of participation than I had dared to hope for.
Participants are faithfully touching base with each other daily. No one has contacted me to report any issues, which is the quintessence of “no news is good news.” But the program is giving residents – and me – some peace of mind, and new relationships are being forged, which, even absent a crisis, is well worth the effort to establish the program.
What advice do you have to provide other managers of apartment buildings as they manage this pandemic?
The managers in Van Ness apartment buildings tend to be excellent, and I imagine they are faring well. Having said that, the feelings of powerlessness people are experiencing now can cut two ways. Managers who do everything right but fail to convey their dedication to preventing community spread and their concern for residents may become scapegoats for the frustration, uncertainty and fear in their communities. The more proactive we are, and the more information we share, the better we will fare!
If anyone would like to try the Covid Companions program in their building or neighborhood community, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The program is easy to launch, especially if you use the materials I developed. I will be delighted to share them with any community leaders, including property managers.