Tele-Town Hall Gets the Word Out About COVID-19

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 3, 2020

This week alone, AARP in some 30 states conducted tele-town halls and 123 state calls have taken place since the pandemic surfaced. AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 members age 50 and over, was among the very first states to address the pandemic in a tele-town hall over two weeks ago.

At the AARP Tele-Town Hall, held Wednesday, April 22, during the 56-minute live event, state officials came to answer questions about how to cope with the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and how seniors can protect their health and stay safe. AARP Rhode Island’s John Martin, Communication Director, served as host and the panel of experts featured Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) Director Rosamaria Amoros Jones and Rhode Island Department of Health Medical Director Jim McDonald.

“We had 3,050 participants and, at one time, 974 people were on at the same time,” says Martin, who hosted the call. “We took 18 live calls in 55 minutes and, unfortunately had close to 20 people waiting to speak when time expired,” he adds, noting that it was AARP Rhode Island’s largest tele-town hall audience ever.

According to Martin, “Our in-call interactive poll revealed that nearly three quarters of those who cast votes were most interested in local resources and information on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, About a quarter said they were looking for help caring for family and loved ones, and information on insurance.”

Adds AARP State Director Kathleen Connell, “We were extraordinary pleased with the response to the tele-town hall,” who said she expects more statewide calls. “Just as important, however, is our virtual engagement with members and especially our volunteers. We are getting used to communicating online because that is where all of our ‘personal’ contact will be taking place, at least in the next few months — and that will include video conferencing, which we are testing now. We are impressed at how eager people 50 and older are ready to master the technology and join in.”

State Officials Talk COVID-19

“We are at a point where we are starting to see the benefits of our collective efforts of [maintaining] physical distancing, states OHA Director Jones. It is flattening the curb where the peak number of people requiring care at a time is reduced and the health care system is not overwhelmed, she says.

“It is really important for us that social or physical distancing as we also refer to it does not equal social isolation,” says Jones, noting that innovative approaches can keep people engaged with each other during this time of physical distancing.

Jones also gave a plug for Project Hello (http://oha.ri.gov/get-involved/volunteering/), a program that matches older adults with someone in the community for regular chats and for mutual support. “We’re in it for the long haul and it is going to take all of us working together neighbors helping neighbors,” she says.

“Effective quarantine and isolation efforts are critical today,” says Jones. “Our focus is on making it as easy and as comfortable as possible right now to stay home as we ready ourselves for the new normal that is on the other side of the pandemic,” she adds.

Jones called for those in quarantine and self-isolation reach out to Shopping Angels (www.facebook.com/shoppingangelsinc/) for assistance in personal shopping.

One caller expressed strong concern about Governor Gina Raimondo’s comment that people over age 60, at greater risk of severe COVID-19 illness, would be required to stay home for a longer period of time before being allowed to return to work or participate in community activities. “There have been no definitive decisions to implement restrictions at this time,” said Jones trying to reassure the caller.

Although there are programs and services detailed on the internet that can assist older Rhode Islanders to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, one caller asked how these could be accessed without a laptop, computer or smart phone. Jones noted that The Point (http://oha.ri.gov/get-help/), operated by United Way Rhode Island and linked through 211 or by dialing (401) 462-4444, could provide information, referrals to needed programs and services.

How would people age 60 and over be protected against age discrimination when the governor is stating that it might take a longer time for these individuals to return to work? asked a caller. “It’s something we are thinking a lot about and a lot more [will] come as we talk about what the new normal is going to look like as we come through the peak of the pandemic, says Jones, stressing that age discrimination would not be tolerated.

Jones called for listeners to visit NextDoor.com, a website that promotes volunteer opportunities (including the delivery of groceries for seniors and those in quarantine), to see how they could help those impacted by COVID-19. For those seeking information about housing, Jones recommended a site, RI Havens, that provides a listing of hotels with affordable room rates for front line workers and for those persons stranded because of the virus and might need a safe place to stay. Details about food delivery options and food assistance programs can be found at the site, RI Delivers, that connects those in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 with opportunities to have food delivered by local and big-box grocery stores.

One caller asked Dr. James McDonald, Medical Director at RI Department of Health (DOH), about how a person could improve their immunity to assist them to successfully combat COVID-19. “You can’t always control the virus but you can control yourself,” says McDonald, stressing the importance of eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising and losing weight are actions to take to improving your health.

Making COVID-19 Transparent in Rhode Island’s Nursing Homes

During the Tele-Town Hall, McDonald was asked a question, “Why can’t the Health Department provide a list of long-term care and assisted living facilities that will show the number of patients/residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and the number of facilities.” Twenty-four hours later this list appeared on the DOH Coronavirus Data Hub. (https://ri-department-of-health-covid-19-data-rihealth.hub.arcgis.com/).

McDonald noted that this particular virus has been so effective in causing the pandemic because it takes so long for a person to show symptoms and that other people who have it sometimes spread the virus before they even have symptoms and they don’t even know they should isolate because they don’t feel ill. It becomes important for a person to wear a mask when going outside to stop the spread of the virus, he says.

MacDonald says that it is highly unlikely to catch COVID-19 by touching grocery bags placed on your porch or through picking up a letter or package. He suggests constantly using hand sanitizer and washing your hands before and after picking up items touched by others.

AARP has created a special web page, http://www.aarp.org/RICOVID for coronavirus information and resources,” says AARP Rhode Island’s Martin added. “There you will find information about our ‘Community Connections’ program, aimed at combating isolation and loneliness, and a direct link to http://www.aarp.org/coronovirus, where all of AARP’s resources can be found.

AARP Town Hall Gives Its Best to Educate Seniors on COVID-19

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 5, 2020

With more than 278 Americans now infected with the Coronavirus virus (COVID-19) and at least 7,159 people dying from the deadly virus, according to an April 3 blog article the New York Times, “about 311 million people in at least 41 states, three counties, eight cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.” The Washington, DC-based AARP continues to intensify its efforts to educate seniors about COVID-19 by hosting weekly Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall events.

At AARP’s second Coronavirus Information Tele-Town Hall event, held Thursday, March 19, during the 90 minute live event, federal health experts gathered to answer questions about the latest changes to address the health impacts of COVID-19, family caregiving needs, and to give tips on how seniors can stay safe from scams and frauds. AARP’s Vice President Bill Walsh served a host and the panel of experts featured Dr. Jay Butler, M.D., the deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), Lance Robertson, the assistant secretary for aging and administrator of the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and Daniel Kaufman, the deputy director for the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. AARP’s Jean Setzfand. AARP’s senior vice president served as moderator.

CDC’s Butler called for the public to stay informed and take the coronavirus virus seriously. “As we’ve learned more about COVID-19, it’s very clear that most people who become infected do recover and do very well. But unfortunately, some get very sick. And some even die. And the risk of more severe illness is greatest for those who are older and for persons with underlying health conditions, especially chronic heart, lung or kidney disease, and those with diabetes,” he says.

Juggling Costs and Benefits While Promoting Social Distancing

According to Butler, grocery stores are juggling costs and benefits with promoting social distancing by designating special hours for seniors to shop if they don’t have someone who can make “that run to the grocery store or have delivery services available.”

“We’re at the end of flu season so if you develop symptoms (cough, muscle aches, headache, and temperature) it doesn’t mean that you have COVID-19, says Butler. For those concern, it is important to talk with your health care provider who will determine whether or not you should be evaluated and whether or not a test may be necessary, he adds, noting that COVID-19 testing is now covered by Medicare Part B when it’s ordered by a health care provider.

“Of course, if you suddenly become very ill—and that would be things like shortness of breath, chest pain, difficulty in getting your breath at all or noticing that your face or your lips are turning blue—that’s when you call 911, and get in as quickly as possible,” says Butler.

Butler notes that the primary transmission of the COVID-19 virus (as well as the six other coronaviruses that were previously known to cause disease in humans), is respiratory droplets.

By coughing or sneezing you produce droplets that contain the virus that can spread as far as five or six feet away from you, he says stressing that this is why social-distancing can protect you from catching the virus.

Many express concerns that COVID-19 can be picked up by handling letters and packages. But, says that the likelihood of transmission of is extremely low. So, consider sending a package a loved one in an assisted living facility or nursing home because it can be meaningful, says Butler.

For those over age 75 to age 80, Butler recommends that these individuals practice social distancing by connecting with their children or grandchildren by phone video chat to being exposed to COVID-19.

Butler gave simple tips for residents of senior living complexes to protect themselves from COVID-19. When you come back into your apartment after taking out trash to the chute or dumpster, “wash your hands,” he says. “And that means about 20 seconds with soap and water.

It seems like a long time but it’s the same amount of time it usually takes getting through the alphabet or to sing Happy Birthday twice,” adds Butler. Or just use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol as an alternative to hand washing.

ACL Administrator Robertson provided tips to unpaid caregivers who cannot visit their loved ones in nursing homes due to the necessary visiting restrictions. He says, get the facility’s up-to-date contact information along with details as to ways as how to make virtual visits, video chats and regular phone calls. He says, don’t forget to send cards and notes, not only to your loved one, but to other residents even to staff to say thank you.

Communicating with Your Loved Ones

Enhance your verbal communication by asking the facility staff to schedule the time for your call. “If your mom is most alert in the morning, pick a morning time, think about what music they might like and play that in the background or sing along or sing directly to your loved one,” recommends Robertson.

Robertson notes, “If you find the conversation struggling a bit, maybe play a game of trivia, reminisce, work on a crossword puzzle together, sing songs, read poetry or other materials.

Watch a TV show at the same time and just discuss. Again, throw in some creativity and you can help prevent both boredom and isolation.”

For those more technically savvy, face-to-face interaction through FaceTime, Messenger, Facebook, Zoom, can enhance your contact, says, Robertson.

Adds Robertson, make sure you ask the facility staff to keep the scheduled time of the care conference, holding it over the phone. “We know they’re busy, but it’s imperative that you remain linked as a caregiver,” he says.

For those caregivers seeking resources to take care of their loved one at home, call ACL’s Eldercare Locator, recommends Robertson. It’s toll-free 1-800-677-1116.

During this COVID-19 emergency FTC’s Daniel Kaufman warned that you will see “unscrupulous marketers” trying to take advantage of senior’s fears by selling them bogus treatments. In early March, he told the listeners that the FTC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent out warning letters to seven companies that were claiming products (such as cheese, essential oils and colloidal silver) could treat or prevent the coronavirus. He quipped, these companies are not making these claims anymore and urged seniors to report any scams they come across by going to ftc.gov/complaint.

Kaufman says that seniors can also go to ftc.gov/coronavirus or just go to ftc.gov to see a very prominent link for coronavirus scams. If you want to receive consumer alerts directly from the FTC, you can go to ftc.gov/subscribe.

Skyrocketing of COVID-19 Related Scams

According to Kaufman, FTC is seeing an increase in scams, from phishing emails, charity and stock scams, to robocalls selling cleaning supplies and masks.

“We are seeing a lot of bogus emails that are going out to consumers, that use headers about coronavirus to get people to open them. You know, these are fake emails that are purporting to come from legitimate and important organizations like the World Health Organization or the CDC,” says Kaufman. “Don’t click on links when you get those emails. Don’t open those emails. They will download viruses or be harmful to software onto your computer, or they will try to get your private information or credit card information,” he adds.

Watch out for charity scams, too, warns Kaufman. “You know, this is a difficult time and we all want to help. But we want to make sure we’re helping charities and not scammers who are pretending to be charities, he says, suggesting that you do your homework to protect your pocketbooks.

With COVID-19 spreading across the nation you are now seeing more robocalls touting products and services to protect you from being exposed to virus. “Just hang up. Keep in mind that anyone who’s robocalling you, if they’re trying to sell you a product, they’re already doing something that’s unlawful,” he says.

Kaufman also recommends that seniors use a credit card when purchasing products, whether it’s cleaning supplies or masks, on websites. “It’s pretty easy to set up a website that’s purporting to provide, to sell these kinds of products. And they’re taking consumers’ payment information but not delivering, he notes.

Finally, Kaufman urges seniors to watch out for watch out for fraudsters who are touting that a certain company’s stock that is certainly going to explode because they have products that can treat coronavirus. Don’t fall for this stock scam and buy this stock.

For the latest coronavirus news and advice, go to http://www.AARP.org/coronavirus.

To see transcript, go to http://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/tele-town-hall-coronavirus-03-19.html.

The Coronavirus and its Effect on Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 22, 2020

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads across the nation, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and other federal agencies strive to cope with meeting the huge challenges they face resulting from the unexpected pandemic outbreak, attempting to juggle worker safety while maintaining their daily operations.

On March 19, Key House Democratic and Republican Committee Chairs send a clear message to SSA as to the importance of minimizing any disruptions to its operations during the coronavirus crises. Throughout its 85-year history, Social Security recipients (seniors, families who have lost a breadwinner, and people with disabilities) have never missed getting their monthly check. Keeping this in mind, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-MA) and Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX), along with Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY), Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN), sent a letter on March 19 to Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul calling on the agency to continue their work to prioritize health and transparency in an effort to minimize disruptions as they administer vital services during the coronavirus crisis.

“We know the decision to close SSA field offices…was a difficult decision. … This move will save lives and will also protect the health of SSA frontline staff, whose public service is so critical,” the key House lawmakers wrote.

“We understand that as coronavirus spreads, you are prioritizing work that fulfills SSA’s core mission,” the letter continued. “We fully support this prioritization.”

“We are writing to urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to vigorously safeguard the health of the public and agency employees during the coronavirus crisis, while also minimizing disruptions in services to the American people,” stated the House lawmakers. “Telework is a commonsense response to coronavirus and we urge you to maximize its use across SSA. In addition, we encourage SSA to communicate regularly and robustly with the public and with its employees about SSA’s coronavirus response. Social Security is a program that affects the lives of all Americans. As SSA’s response to coronavirus evolves, the public must be able to count on timely information about how to access benefits and services, including assistance when a problem arises.”

The members emphasized that that they stand ready to work with the agency to ensure it has the resources and authority it needs to operate effectively during the crisis while ensuring SSA remains able to send benefits on time each month.

COVID-19 Changes Way SSA Does Business

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way SSA does business across the nation. Effective Tuesday, March 17, SSA closed all local Social Security offices for in-person service. SSA says that this decision protects the population it services — older Americans and people with underlying medical conditions—and its employees during the crisis.

But SSA employees remain at their cubicles, the processing of benefits and claims continues. However, critical services can be accessed online. The agency directed the pubic to visit its website (https://www.ssa.gov/) or its toll-free number, 800-772-1213 for customer service. You can apply for retirement, disability, and Medicare benefits online, check the status of an application or appeal, request a replacement Social Security card (in most areas), print a benefit verification letter, and much more – from anywhere and from any of your devices.

According to SSA, there is also a wealth of information to answer most of your Social Security questions online, without having to speak with an SSA employee in person or by phone. Visit our online Frequently Asked Questions at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/ask.

However, those persons who are blind or terminally ill, or need SSI or Medicaid eligibility issues resolved related to work status can obtain in person services in local offices.

SSA also provides COVID-19 related information and customer service updates on a special website (https://www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/)
According to a March 19 blog posting by the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “The Ways and Means committee leaders suggest SSA allow employees to telework where possible, in accordance with federal guidelines. National Committee senior legislative representative (and former 35-year SSA employee) Webster Phillips says the agency’s teleworking capabilities have been diminished since Andrew Saul came on board as administrator – and will take time and resources to build back up.”

The NCPSSM’s blog posting noted, “SSA will discontinue several of its normal activities in order to prioritize beneficiaries’ needs. “There are workloads that they’re not going to process while this is going on, focusing exclusively on paying benefits,” says Phillips. Those include stopping all Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) and curtailing eligibility re-determinations for SSI recipients.”

Finally, “SSA also has discontinued in-person disability hearings to protect the health of claimants and employees. Instead, those hearings will take place via telephone or video conference, where possible,” adds the blog posting.

The Bottom Line…

On March 19, SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul, issued a statement to assure the 65 million Social Security recipients that SSA payments will continued to be processed. He stated, “The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits.”  But Saul warned, “Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The United States Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, with Saul’s assurances and the postal service still delivering mail, you can expect to get your benefits.
Stay healthy.