In a remarkable turnaround, the Actors Fund Home in New Jersey, which saw the COVID-related deaths of 10 of its residents in the early days of the pandemic, has been COVID-free for more than five months – since April 21.
Similarly, residents at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Country Home in Woodland Hills, which saw the deaths of six residents there in the first months of the pandemic, has not had an infection among its residents since April 12.
Asked how the New Jersey facility has gotten the upper hand on the virus, Actors Fund president and CEO Joe Benincasa told Deadline: “Our administrator, Jordan Strohl, virtually lived at the facility and walked the floors, inspiring and motivating a great staff. When he went home to his wife and three kids, he isolated himself, just as a precaution. His ‘plan for the worst and hope for the best’ approach to managing the Home has gotten excellent outcomes. Also, we make decisions based on ‘best practices’ in order to create a safe environment, regardless of cost. The isolation rooms and frequent testing are two good examples.”
“We constantly review our emergency and disaster manuals, keeping up-to-date on state and federal guidelines, always running ‘what if’ scenarios and in service training for all staff. Knowing that the Greater New York area could be hard hit, we gathered significant amounts of PPE and other emergency supplies early in the year. In-service training on proper PPE protocols and infection control is something we have always done.
“In March, we built plastic barriers or ‘air locks’ that separated the units, separating suspected cases of COVID-19. We surrounded them with well-trained, well-garbed staff. This was critically important as we accepted admissions from local hospitals as mandated by the State.
“Early on, we developed an aggressive resident and staff testing program, and we have long maintained relationships with infection disease experts; we follow their advice and are in constant contact.” To date, he said, none of the Home’s staff has contracted the virus.
The Actors Fund completed a $34 million expansion and renovation of the 169-bed Home last year, adding subacute and memory care to its skilled nursing and assisted living operations. It also recently launched a $1 million capital project to further “pandemic proof” the facility with a gift from the estate of former resident Merle Debuskey, the renowned theatrical press agent who died in 2018.
The Home “has a perfect rating from the State of New Jersey, and five stars from the feds,” Benincasa said, noting that residents at the Fund’s affordable housing and special-needs apartment complexes – the Palm View in West Hollywood, the Schermerhorn in Brooklyn and the Friedman Residence in Manhattan – have been COVID-free throughout the pandemic.
“The Friedman, Schermerhorn and Palm View residences will continue to be wonderful homes for our colleagues,” Benincasa said. “And helping colleagues secure affordable housing and building more affordable housing will continue to be a priority, and we have several projects moving forward. Through direct financial assistance alone, we have helped 13,432 people with more than $16 million. We are also managing 16 relief funds on behalf of unions and associations.
“Helping entertainment professionals sustain or secure health insurance is a major undertaking, and we have added seven counselors to help. This is our ‘Every Artist Insured’ program. And at our Career Center, we are helping people who are used to working on stage and behind the scenes about other ways to earn a living.”
Going forward, he said, the Actors Fund will continue its many programs that provide financial, health care, affordable housing, and career assistance to industry professionals. “This is truly a time to focus on only the most essential services,” Benincasa said, but noted that “while the Actors Fund and other non-profit human service organizations have important roles to play in helping people deal with the pandemic, we recognize that government must take the lead to providing support and assistance so needed.”
“Guiding us in these uncertain times,” he said, “is our belief that tomorrow will be better than today.”
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