COVID-19 Key Issue for Older Voters

Pubished in the Pawtucket Times on November 2, 2020

With Tuesday’s presidential election, hopefully most voters will have reviewed the policy and political positions of President Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.  Throughout the months of this heated political campaign, especially during the two debates and at the town meetings each candidate held on the same evening, their positions diverged sharply on major issues, specifically the economy, immigration, foreign policy, global warming, abortion and COVID-19. In the final stretch of the presidential campaign, winning the war against COVID-19 has quickly become the top issue of voters. 

Over the months, Trump, 74, has barnstormed throughout the country, especially in battleground states, hoping to capture enough electoral votes to win a second term on Nov. 3.  While states reduce the size of gatherings to reduce the spread of COVID-19, throughout the campaign Trump’s rallies have continued to bring thousands of supporters together, with many flaunting local and state coronavirus-related crowd restrictions by not wearing masks or social distancing.  

However, Biden, 77, is always seen wearing a mask, urging his supporters at online and drive-in events to support his candidacy.  At those events, the former vice president called Trump rallies “super-spreader events,” and he stressed the importance of following the advice of public health and medical experts as to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Differing Views on COVID-19

The 2020 presidential campaign has been overshadowed by the COVID 19 pandemic, with 9 million confirmed cases, 227,000 Americans dying from the coronavirus and an economic downturn forcing more than 31 million people to file for unemployment. During his rallies, Trump claimed “the nation has turned the corner,” calling for the country to “return to normalcy” even as COVID 19 hot spots were popping up across the nation.  Trump also promised the development of a vaccine and distribution after the election and treatment regimens.  Lately, he has suggested that physicians and hospitals are just inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths for profit, drawing the ire of the American Medical Association.

At an Oct. 18 Nevada rally, Trump charged that if Biden is elected there will be more coronavirus pandemic lockdowns because “he’ll listen to the scientists.” The president charged that will result “in a massive depression.”

In stark contrast, Biden countered Trump’s call for normalcy and his rosy assessment of a COVID-19 vaccine release by stating, “We’re about to go into a dark winter…He [has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that a vaccine is going to be available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”

 Oftentimes, Trump’s messaging of the importance of wearing a mask has not been clear, often times contradicting the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention and the White House COVID-19 Task Force.  “I was okay with the masks.  I was good with it, but I’ve heard very different stories on masks,” he said during his town hall on NBC on Oct. 15.   The president opposes a mandate requiring the wearing of masks and favors leaving this decision to state governors and local leaders.

Turning a Deaf Ear to Public Health Experts

As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire across the nation, Trump and many of his supporters at his large campaign gatherings and even some GOP lawmakers continue to not wear masks or practice social distancing to stop the spread of the disease, their actions ignoring the warnings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force.

According to an Oct. 12 CNN tweet, “Dr. Fauci says Pres. Trump resuming in-person rallies is “asking for trouble” and “now is… a worse time to do that because when you look at what’s going on in the United States it’s really very troublesome. A number of states, right now, are having increase in test positivity.”

During an interview with CNBC on Oct. 28, Reuters reported, that Dr. Fauci stated, “We are in a very different trajectory.  We’re going in the wrong direction,” noting the COVID-19 cases are increasing in 47 states and hospitals are being overwhelmed by these patients.”

“If things do not change,” Dr. Fauci warned, “If they continue on the course we’re on, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases and hospitalizations and deaths.”

Now researchers are beginning to shed light on Trump’s large rally gatherings and the spread of the COVID-19 among the supporters who attended the events.

Zach Nayer, a resident at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, and a colleague reviewed the number of new COVID-19 cases for the 14 days before and after each Trump rally from late June to a Sept. 25 Newport News event, and published their findings on Oct. 16 on the health news site STAT.

According to the researchers, the spikes in COVID-19 cases occurred in seven of the 14 cities and townships where rallies were held: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Phoenix; Old Forge, Pa.; Bemidji and Mankato in Minnesota; and Oshkosh and Weston, Wis.

Meanwhile on Oct. 30, Stanford researchers, studying 18 Trump rallies (between June 20 and Sept. 22) concluded that those large events resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and likely caused more than 700 deaths among attendees and their close contacts.

No End in Sight

Don’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic to end soon as the number of those infected and deaths continue to spiral out of control.  

According to the COVID Tracking Project, COVID-19 cases increased by 97,080 on Oct. 31, by far the largest one-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic last March, with Midwestern states leading a wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths across the nation just before the Tuesday’s presidential election.  Experts say that those statistics refutes Trumps charges that the number of COVID 19 cases is growing due to increased testing. 

America’s oldest seniors have lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II. Now they, along with aging Baby Boomers, face the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.  Among adults, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age. According to AARP, 95 percent of the people across the nation that have died of COVID-19 were 50 and older even though most of the coronavirus cases have been reported in younger than 50.

Before older voters cast their ballots they must consider which presidential candidate’s leadership style can marshal the nation’s resources and devise the best strategy to combat COVID-19 and stop its spread. 

Do we reopen the nation, opening schools and businesses or do we consider lockdowns if recommended by the nation’s public health and medical experts?  Do we consider a “national mask mandate” or do we just leave it up to state governors to decide whether to implement an order requiring people to wear them in public? 

Your vote matters. For you older voters, it just might save your life.

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Social Security ’21 Cola Increase Anemic

Published in RINewsToday.com on on October 19, 2020

With the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) announcement of next year’s Social Security and Supplemental Security Income’s (SSI) meager cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), over 70 million beneficiaries will only see an increase of 1.3 percent in their monthly checks in 2021.  Last year’s COLA increase was 2.8 percent, the largest in seven years.

According to SSA, the 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2021. Increased payments to more than 8 million Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries start on December 31, 2020. 

SSA ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase to $142,800 from $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age will increase to $18,960. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,960.)

The earnings limit for people reaching their “full” retirement age in 2021 will increase to $50,520. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $50,520 until the month the worker turns “full” retirement age.)

There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year. 

Next Year’s COLA Increase Not Enough 

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) calls the increase as inadequate especially for COVID-Ravaged Seniors and noted that it’s the lowest since 2017.  

“The timing could not be worse. The COVID pandemic has devastated many older Americans both physically and financially.  Seniors living on fixed incomes need a lifeboat; this COLA increase is more like an underinflated inner tube,” says Richtman.

The average Social Security beneficiary will see a paltry $20 month more in benefits in 2021, calculates Richtman. “This COLA is barely enough for one prescription co-pay or half a bag of groceries. Worse yet, seniors could lose almost half of their COLA increase to a rise in the Medicare Part B premium for 2021, the exact amount of which has not yet been announced,” he warns.  

“The current COLA formula – the CPI-W – is woefully inadequate for calculating the true impact of inflation on seniors’ pocketbooks. It especially under-represents the rising costs that retirees pay for expenses like health care, prescription drugs, food, and housing. We support the adoption of the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which properly weights the goods and services that seniors spend their money on,” says Richtman. 

Examining the Growth of SSA COLAs 

Social Security checks in 2020 are almost 20 percent lower than they otherwise would be, due to the long-term impact of extremely low annual inflation adjustments, according to a newly released analysis by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL).  The analysis comes as SSA announced that the 2021 COLA will be just 1.3 percent, making it one of the lowest ever paid. 

“People who have been receiving benefits for 12 years or longer have experienced an unprecedented series of extremely low cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs),” says TSCL’s Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for the Alexandria, Virginia nonpartisan senior advocacy group. “What’s more those inflation adjustments do not account for rapidly rising Medicare Part B premiums that are increasing several times faster than the COLA,” she says, noting that this causing those with the lower Social Security benefits to see little growth in their net Social Security income after deduction of the Part B premium.  

Johnson’s COLA analysis, released on Oct. 13, compared the growth of retiree benefits from 2009-through 2020 to determine how much more income retirees would receive if COLAs had grown by a more typical rate of 3 percent. TSCL’s analysis found that an “average” retiree benefit of $1,075 per month in 2009 has grown to $1,249 in 2020, but, if COLAs had just averaged 3 percent, that benefit would be $247 per month higher today (19.8 percent higher), and those individuals would have received $18,227.40 more in Social Security income over the 2 010 to 2020 period. 

During that period COLAs have averaged just 1.4 percent. In 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was 0.03 percent. “But COLAs have never remained so low, for such an extended period of time, in history of Social Security,” says Johnson, who has studied COLAs for more than 25 years.  Over the 20-year period covering 1990 to 2009, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent annually, and were even higher before that period. 

According to Johnson, the suppressed growth in Social Security benefits not only creates ongoing benefit adequacy issues, but also Medicare budgetary programs when the COLA is not sufficient to cover rising Part B premiums for large number of beneficiaries. When the dollar amount of the annual Medicare Part B premium increase is greater than the dollar amount of an individual’s annual COLA, the Social Security benefits of about 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by the hold-harmless provision in the Social Security Act.  The Medicare Part B premium of those individuals is reduced to prevent their net Social Security benefits from being lower than the year before, she says. 

However, Johnson notes that the people who are not covered by hold harmless include higher income beneficiaries, beneficiaries who have not started Social Security yet and who pay for Medicare by check and about 19 percent of beneficiaries whose incomes are so low that their state Medicaid programs pay their Medicare Part B premiums on their behalf. 

Johnson says, “that a provision of a recently enacted government spending bill restricts Part B premium increases in 2021. The bill caps the Part B premium increase for next year at the 2020 amount plus 25 percent of the differences between the 2020 amount and a preliminary amount for 2021.”

Don’t look for the “potential Part B spike” to go away, warns Johnson. “Unless Congress acts to boost Social Security benefits and finds a better way to adjust benefits for growing Medicare costs, this problem will continue occur with greater frequency in the future,” she says.

Fixing SSA’s COLA Problem Once and For All

During the COVID-19 pandemic seniors are relying more on their Social Security check but continue to face cost increases each year beyond the extra income provided by the COLA, says Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-Connecticut) in a statement following SSA’s announcement of its tiny 2021 COLA increase. “It’s time to fix that by enacting the Social Security 2100 Act.,” says the Connecticut Congressman calling for passage of his legislative proposal that would strengthen SSA benefits by basing the COLA on what seniors actually spend on items such as medical expenses, food, and housing. Under this new CPI-E index, a beneficiary would experience benefits that are 6 percent higher by the time they reach age 90. 

Meanwhile, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) sponsored and Larson, a co-sponsor, have proposed emergency legislation to increase next year’s COLA up to 3 percent. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors are facing additional financial burdens in order to stay safe,” said DeFazio.  “This absolutely anemic COLA won’t even come close to helping them afford even their everyday expenses, let alone those exacerbated by COVID-19. Raising the COLA to 3 percent 2021 will provide seniors with an immediate, crucial lifeline during the ongoing coronavirus crisis,” says the Oregon Congressman. DeFazio’s legislative proposal, the Social Security Expansion Act, would also provide a permanent fix to the COLA formula, like Larson using a CPI-E index to factor in seniors’ actual, everyday expenses.

Senate Committee on Aging: Impact of Isolation and Loneliness on Seniors During COVID-19

Published in RINewsToday.com, on June 17, 2020

As the COVID-19 crisis has shuttered businesses throughout the nation, state and federal health officials scramble to stop the spread of this deadly virus. As states begin to slowly open up their economies, a growing number of researchers are finding that mandated social distancing and isolation through self-quarantine may have significantly impacted senior’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Just days ago, a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging morning hearing, chaired by Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Bob Casey (D-PA), was held to address the growing isolation and loneliness seniors across the nation are experiencing due to COVID-19 and to explore what policies can better assist those working with this vulnerable population.

The Senate Aging Committee hearing, titled, “Combating Social Isolation and Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” pulled together a panel of experts who are supporting older adults in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living, home health, and the community. On July 11, the two hour and twenty-minute hearing, at Senate Russell Office Building 253, featured a new released report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) titled, “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care SyCommstem.”

America’s Seniors are Isolated and Lonely

According to the Washington, DC-based NASEM’s findings, nearly one quarter of older adults are socially isolated, and more than 40 percent report being lonely. During the COVID-19 pandemic, early studies have suggested that for some older adults, social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are resulting in increased rates of social isolation and loneliness, which can have serious, even deadly, consequences for the health and well-being of our nation’s seniors. Prolonged social isolation and loneliness have been found to have adverse impacts on health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

This hearing builds on the Aging Committee’s long-standing leadership on the issue of social isolation and loneliness, including holding the first Congressional hearing on this topic in 2017 and leading the 2020 reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA), which included several policies to reduce social isolation and loneliness, says a statement issued by the Senate Aging Committee.

“As the pandemic continues and the epidemic of loneliness and isolation worsens, we run the risk of an infectious disease causing a mental health crisis. Already, calls to Maine’s mental health support line have increased an estimated 40 percent since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Collins in an opening statement.

According to Collins, isolation and loneliness also have a fiscal cost, too. The Maine Senator highlighted a 2017 paper published by AARP’s Public Policy Institute, that reported isolation among older adults increases federal spending by an estimated $6.7 billion annually, as isolated people are often sicker and have to rely more heavily on skilled nursing care.

Combating Social Isolation

In his opening statement, Casey stated: “Before COVID-19, millions of seniors faced social isolation and loneliness every day, we know that. Now, they are looking at relatives through windowpanes. He urged his Senate colleagues to support his legislation, which would combat the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing additional funding to expand senior nutrition programs and SNAP delivery and combat social isolation through the purchase of technology by nursing homes so residents can connect with their loved ones.”

During the hearing, Betsy Sawyer-Manter, President and CEO of SeniorsPlus in Lewiston, Maine, an agency that oversees the Area Agency on Aging’s (AAA) nutrition services, caregiver services, Alzheimer’s respite, Medicare, counseling, and health and wellness programs, discussed her work to shift to virtual programming in place of home visits and to scale up the nutrition program to meet growing needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She told the committee how these practices have helped to combat social isolation for older adults.

Najja Orr, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), discussed the steps PCA has taken to help seniors during this public health crisis, including their work to strengthen their home-delivered meal program. He called for increased funding and education to bridge the digital divide in communities as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many programs and resources to online platforms. Additionally, Orr urged Congress to expand flexibility of funding awarded to states and AAA’s through the Older Americans Act, which would allow local governments and agencies to better meet the needs specific to their communities.

Carla Perissinotto, MD, associate chief for Geriatrics Clinical Programs at the University of California San Francisco, who has studied the health impacts of loneliness on seniors for a decade, noted that “the prevalence rates for loneliness and isolation range from 20 percent to 50 percent and the corresponding health effects are disquieting.” According to Perissinotto, isolation and loneliness are associated with a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia. Those people with heart failure who are experiencing loneliness also have a four-fold increase in the risk of death, a 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization and a 57 percent increase in risk of hospitalization use.

Perissinotto expressed concern to the committee about the downstream health effects of the pandemic. “Seemingly overnight, we saw our social structures dissolve as we were all forced to socially distance ourselves,” she says. “The challenge of all of this is that to protect our lives and health now, we have had to subject ourselves and others to the potential risks that we may be worsening our health and shortening our life expectancies in the future.”

Although video and internet technology are being used to communicate with those shuttered in their homes and nursing home and assisted living facilities, a large number of seniors do not have access to these technologies, says Perissinotto. These technologies are especially difficult for the hearing and visionally impaired persons to use, she says.

Finally, Dr. Peter Reed, Director of the Sanford Center for Aging at the University of Nevada Reno, discussed a portal he created for older adults in Nevada to easily communicate their needs in areas including telehealth, social support, and food and medicine. This portal, called the Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network Rapid Response (Nevada CAN), was launched on April 1st and has served hundreds of seniors during the pandemic.

Ending Legislative Gridlock in the Senate

COVID-19 related legislative proposals await consideration in the Senate. As the Presidential election approaches, voters must demand that the Senate end legislative gridlock, allowing swift bipartisan action to pass legislative proposal that will help seniors affected by the COVID-19 virus. We can’t sit back and wait.
To purchase a copy of NASEM’s “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System,” go to
https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the .

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.