Long-term care communities have both a pressing duty and a powerful self-interest to efficiently trace the contacts of anyone with COVID-19 within their community. Yet contact tracing is notoriously painstaking work when undertaken without technological assistance. It is often cut short by contacts’ wariness and suspicion—even after tracers have already overcome natural gaps in memory about who an infected person saw and when.

Real-time location services, or RTLS, technology improves the accuracy of contact tracing while also greatly simplifying the process. Typically installed in long-term care communities to prevent elopements and integrate with nurse call and safety measures including fire alarms, RTLS systems—which track the real-time movement of anyone equipped with a wearable beacon—make contact tracing as simple as running a report.

Some systems already feature a “contact tracing” tab in their display: The user goes to this tab, inputs a timeframe and a person’s name, and a full accounting is created immediately, showing exactly who the person came in contact with, where and when. In the case of Sars-CoV-2, which can be transmitted via small respiratory droplets that may linger in the air for minutes to hours, an RTLS system may also be used to identify non-contacts who nonetheless used the same passageway or room as an infected person in a certain window of time.

No senior living community can survive without healthy, hard-working staff. In a pandemic that disproportionately affects both healthcare workers and lower-wage earners, then, losing staff to illness has major ramifications, particularly with so few replacement staff available for hire. 

It is not just illness that’s costing these communities their employees. In locations across the U.S., staff have gone on strike or simply not shown up at work where they feel employers are not doing enough to protect their safety. Considered “a core disease control measure” and “key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19” by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, contact tracing is one of the measures staff demand in order to feel safe and protected in their jobs. RTLS-enabled contact tracing helps prove to staff that their safety is a priority.

Rapid, effective contact tracing must extend even beyond a community’s residents and staff. Every visitor, delivery person and contractor who passes through the facility’s doors should be given an RTLS-enabled badge or bracelet in order to ensure a complete picture of potential routes of transmission. (This piece is especially important due to the fact that many people infected with COVID are asymptomatic.). While protocols like this are currently voluntary, legislation is almost certainly on the way that will tie accreditation, reimbursement, financial incentives and penalties to the effective implementation of contact tracing and other proven disease control methods.

Understand how

Time is obviously of the essence in the current context; how long does it take for an RTLS system to be installed and integrated with a community’s existing systems? 

Depending on the current infrastructure and how much of the facility will be mapped, the process can take as little as three days. And while installations generally take a week or two, especially in larger sites of 300- or 400-beds, the current need is so great that the typical delays (often just the time it takes to connect on the phone and schedule a visit) can be shortened considerably. Starting with a system that covers only common contact points such as the cafeteria, lobby and other high traffic areas is one way to speed up the process. 

The bulk of the installation is spent setting up RTLS hardware like anchors, as well as distributing related wristbands or pendants. After this step, the RTLS data will ideally be displayed in a single interface — an iPad or iPhone, for instance — that shows people’s locations overlaid onto a floor plan.

Optimally, RTLS-enabled software will both integrate and support existing systems like nurse call or security, providing decision-makers and managers with one interface for managing the community. Having one system is easier for managers, of course, but when that system is a simple graphic one, requiring minimal training, it is also a boon for staff. Ease of use is especially vital in an industry that struggles with high rates of turnover. 

Remote maintenance and remote technological upgrades, offered by many RTLS technology companies, also suit the long-term care industry, as few communities have dedicated information technology staff to perform this type of work.

Think about “what’s next?”

While RTLS technology is obviously suited to the needs of long-term care communities during this pandemic, the case for RTLS is not limited to contact tracing, or even to the COVID-19 crisis in general. In meeting these present pressures, though, communities can position themselves for future opportunities to improve health, preserve resources, enhance recreational offerings, and attract new clients in an increasingly difficult market.

When a senior living community installs RTLS to accompany or unite its other systems, it is enabling seamless payment in the dining hall and notifying staff if a resident leaves the building unmonitored. Beyond these well-understood uses, though, what it’s really doing is creating insights

  • If location services indicate that the majority of residents avoid certain dining options — or avoid certain options on regular days — that can help inform the vendor’s menu (or the choice of vendors). 
  • When RTLS data show that a resident normally takes 450 steps or exhibits a certain amount of activity every day, and all of a sudden that activity level falls 60%, there’s a need for a well check or follow-up. 
  • Wearable RTLS-enabled can be used to automatically adjust exercise equipment to the setting desired by the individual resident. 
  • When a specific recreation offering — an art class, say — gets a lot of signups but fewer and fewer attendees as the months pass, that should tell recreation directors volumes about its popularity. On the other hand, if residents attend a class in droves and many of them linger afterward, that too provides useful information.

Positioning for the future

COVID-19 has taken a massive toll on long-term care communities. As the site of the first U.S. outbreak and the setting for devastating losses subsequently, these communities will need to restore their standing in the public eye if they hope to thrive, even after widespread vaccination. Investing in the safety of their residents and staff now positions them to leverage that same technology and improve recreational, dining and other offerings in the future.

Polina Braunstein is CEO of Quake Global.