AARP: Making Seniors a Priority in Getting COVID-19 Vaccines

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 11, 2021

Last month, a statement the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) announced recommendations from the Rhode Island COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee for hospitals that vaccinations would begin for frontline hospital workers against COVID-19. This recommendation was made at an emergency meeting of the Subcommittee. RIDOH has accepted this recommendation and has communicated to hospitals that they may begin vaccinating these workers, as soon as vaccine arrives.

Two doses will be needed for someone to be fully immunized. Second doses will start arriving in Rhode Island in roughly three weeks. Rhode Island expects to receive approximately 10,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine the first week it is available, and approximately 19,000 doses of Moderna vaccine the first week it is available. Vaccine will come to Rhode Island in weekly allotments over the coming months, says RIDOH.

Epidemiologists, primary care providers, pharmacists, pediatricians, long-term care advocates, ethicists, nonprofit leaders, school leaders, faith leaders serve on Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee.  This group is responsible for performing an independent review of the process for evaluating the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The Subcommittee is advising RIDOH on how to prioritize distribution of the vaccine to ensure that it is done equitably, and in a way that best protects the State as a whole.

At press time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted an Emergency Use Authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer, and a vaccine made Moderna.

Making COVID-19 Vaccine Available Throughout the Ocean State

“After a rigorous scientific review, we know that COVID-19 vaccine is safe. We also know that it is one of the most effective vaccines ever developed,” announced Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH in the Dec. 14 statement. “In the coming weeks and months, as vaccine becomes more available, getting vaccinated will be one of the most powerful things you can do to keep yourself and the people you love safe from COVID-19. We are going to work to ensure that every person in every community in Rhode Island has access to the vaccine, especially those communities hardest hit by this virus,” she said.

Added, Philip Chan, MD, MS, Consultant Medical Director for RIDOH’s Division of Preparedness, Response, Infectious Disease, and Emergency Medical Services, “We have never had a vaccine that has been – or will be – more closely monitored than the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“Teams of scientists at the national level have been scrutinizing thousands of pages of technical data for weeks, focusing on vaccine effectiveness, safety, and the manufacturing process, and our own local review has happened here in Rhode Island. I absolutely plan on getting vaccinated when it is my turn.,” said Chan.

According to RIDOH, the national vaccine trials for the COVID-19 vaccine involved tens of thousands of people to make sure they meet safety standards and people of different ages, races, and ethnicities. There were no serious safety concerns. (When vaccinated against COVID-19, people do sometimes develop post-vaccination symptoms such as soreness at the spot of the shot and headaches. This is normal, healthy, and expected. It means your immune system is working to develop protection.) Several systems are in place to do ongoing safety monitoring of the vaccine.

As of January 8, the last update on RIDOH’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, out of the 31,541 does administered, 29,743 have been vaccinated with their first of two doses, only 1,798 people were fully vaccinated with two doses.

Don’t look for the roll out of COVID-19 to take days or weeks, it will take months to complete, warns RIDOH officials. Phase 1 of the vaccination program is expected to run through late March.  At press time, the state is currently working its way through the top three tiers of this phase, including hospital staff, healthcare workers, EMS personnel, home health and hospice workers, nursing home staff and residents, high-risk incarcerated persons, first responders, school nurses, and even hard-hit communities.

Finally, those in the final two tiers of Phase 1 to be vaccinated include outpatient providers (Dentists, primary care), Dialysis Center workers and death care professionals, expected to begin Jan. 25, and adults over 75 years of age, expected to start by February.

Phase 2 is expected to kick-in by late March.  A number of factors are being considered to target the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations a person’s age, high-risk conditions, occupation and geography.  

Make Older Rhode Islanders a Priority in Receiving Vaccines

AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 older Rhode Islanders, calls for Governor Gina Raimondo to make the state’s seniors a priority in its time-line for on distributing COVID-19 vaccines.  The Jan. 8 correspondence, cosigned by Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island and Phil Zarlengo, the group’s State President, called on Raimondo “to increase COVID vaccination transparency,” as it relates to older Rhode Islanders.

AARP Rhode Island asked the Governor to include the numbers of Rhode Islanders vaccinated by age and other criteria on a daily/weekly basis on RIDOH’s COVID-19 Data Tracker.  Specially, the largest state-wide advocacy group called for the state’s website to include:

·         the numbers and percentages of older Rhode Islanders by race and ethnicity, that have been vaccinated:

·         the number of Rhode Islanders vaccinated and their age demographics on a daily/weekly basis;

·         a clear and easy-to-understand schedule of vaccine administration for all populations; and the process by which individuals may seek and obtain a vaccine;

·          the numbers and percentages of long-term care residents, by facility, that have received their first and second doses of vaccines;

·         the numbers and percentages of long-term care staff, by facility, that have received their first and second doses of vaccines.

While acknowledging the many challenges the state officials must tackle in determining how to equitably, safely and effectively distribute COVID-19 vaccines, Connell and Zarlengo call for Rhode Islanders age 50 and older to be made a priority in receiving a vaccine.

“The data clearly show that the older people are, the higher risk they face if they contract COVID-19.  Given that older individuals are at a greater risk of death from COVID-19, we strongly urge you to ensure that Rhode Islanders age 50 and older are prioritized to receive a vaccine.  These individuals must be given priority access to vaccines, in addition to those individuals receiving care in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities,” say Connell and  Zarlengo.

“For years, the long-term care system has been shifting away from institutional care in nursing homes to home and community-based settings (HCBS). Here in Rhode Island, a significant percentage of long-term services and supports are provided in the home or settings such as assisted living facilities, residential care facilities, veterans homes, and in individuals’ own homes,” says Connell and Zarlengo, stressing that this why the state should prioritize seniors, especially those with underlying conditions, receiving care in these additional settings and the staff providing care, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Finally, AARP Rhode Island’s correspondence urges the Governor to ensure that all providers are fully complying with established state procedures for vaccine distribution and prioritization. “We urge you to investigate and take swift action against anyone who attempts to commit fraud, including by inappropriately selling the vaccine or intentionally providing vaccines to those who do not meet qualifying criteria in an attempt to circumvent the distribution process.”

From AARP’s National

 “We urge public health officials at the state and local level, as they decide on vaccine allocations, to rely on the evidence and make plans backed by science.  As production is ramping up, AARP is advocating hard to ensure every older American who wants to get the vaccine can get it.  It’s also vital that distribution plans for authorized vaccines are smoothly implemented.  There’s no time to waste: it’s time for full-scale mobilization, and any delays or early bottlenecks in distribution systems need to be addressed urgently,” says AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy A. LeaMond in a Dec. 28 statement.  

 

Cicilline Pushes for House Aging Committee

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 4, 2021

Yesterday, the 116th Congress came to an end, with the new Congressional session convening that day with the swearing in of lawmakers elected on Nov. 3, 2020.   Some political observers say that legislative gridlock during this Congress made it the least productive in the last fifty years.  GovTrack.us, reported that of 16,587 bills thrown into the legislative hopper, 252 became enacted laws, and 712 resolutions were passed.

During a Fox interview last February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) candidly admitted he prevented the consideration of hundreds of bills passed by the House that were sent over to the Senate for consideration.   McConnell’s “Legislative Graveyard” created by his controlling the legislative agenda by blocking debate, markup and refusing to allow a vote on House proposed legislation, was widely reported by the media and documented in a 33-page report, “2020 Democracy Score Card,” released last September by Common Cause, a watch dog advocacy group.

The results of tomorrow’s Georgia Senate runoff will determine if the GOP can maintain legislative control of the Senate. If Senate Democratic candidates win their seats, the Senate Democratic caucus will have the majority with 50 Senate seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris having a tie breaking vote. But if McConnell, called “the Grim Reaper” by his critics, continues to maintains political control of the upper chamber, Democratic legislative proposals introduced to improve the quality of life of America’s seniors and to help those struggling to financially make ends meet, would be rejected.  

Legislative Proposals to be Reconsidered by New Congress

During the116th Congress, Washington, DC-based aging advocacy groups, including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) , AARP, Social Security Works, Leadership Council on Aging, and National Council on Aging, pushed for passage of legislative proposals to enhance the quality of life of America’s seniors and to strengthen and expand Social Security and Medicare, to keep these programs fiscally sound.  As the new Congress begins, lawmakers might consider bringing back legislative proposals that were not enacted in the previous Congressional session because of a Republican-controlled Senate.  Here are a few legislative proposals that have some merit and I hope to see reintroduced this year:

Congressman John Larson (D-Conn.) called on Congress to finally address the Social Security “Notch” issue. By ignoring this issue, workers born in 1960 and 1961, would likely see lower Social Security retirement benefits in the future, charged NCPSSM.  Last session, Larson, who chairs the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, introduced the “Social Security COVID Correction and Equity Act,” to increase benefits for those born in 1960 and 1961 without impacting the benefits for any other beneficiary. 

Larson also introduced the “Social Security 2100 Act” to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation would keep the program financially healthy for more than 75 years, while boosting benefits for all retirees. Congress must work during the 117th session to protect and expand the nation’s Social Security program.

The late Maryland Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, introduced the “Lower Drug Costs Now Act” which the House passed last session, would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits. 

Additionally, a bipartisan crafted bill, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act,” introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was not allowed to be considered on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader McConnell.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

Almost three months ago, the Social Security Administration announced that approximately 70 million Americans would see a meager 1.3 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) increase to Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income.  With retirees experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic, a $20 increase in their monthly check might not help them to pay for spiraling health care and drug costs, along with the expenses of purchasing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to keep them safe. 

Following the announcing of the 2021 COLA, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation Committee, introduced the “Emergency Social Security COLA for 2021 Act” to provide Social Security beneficiaries with a 3 percent increase (or a $250 per month flat increase) which would reduce the impact of the small 2021 COLA increase. 

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act,” to provide needed resources to facilities to protect frail residents and staff. Residents in these facilities are among the most vulnerable because of their age and underlying medical conditions.  Days after the introduction of the Senate bill, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), signed on as a cosponsor of the House version.  

This legislative proposal would help states implement strategies to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in congregate settings, including through the purchase of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing and to support nursing home workers with premium pay, overtime and other essential benefits.

New Push to Reestablish House Aging Committee

“After a lifetime of hard work, seniors should be able to enjoy their retirement years with dignity and peace of mind,” says Rhode Island’s Cicilline. “It’s the best way to secure the future of Medicare and Social Security, bring down the cost of prescription drugs, and find solutions for housing, transportation and long-term care issues that are especially important to Rhode Island seniors,” he says.

A long-time advocate for seniors, Cicilline announces in this weekly commentary his intentions of reintroducing a House resolution in the 117th Congress to reestablish the House Aging Committee

During the previous three Congressional sessions, Cicilline, representing the state’s first legislative district, introduced a House Resolution (just 245 words) to reestablish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a Republican-controlled House blocked consideration of the House Resolution. 

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by just approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

Cicilline noted that a House Aging Committee would perform comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get the job done,” says Cicilline.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.

Updated on Jan. 4, 2021