One Year Later – Two Surveys Examine Impact of COVID-19

Published in RINewsToday on May24, 2021

Over the year the raging pandemic has impacted on the physical and mental health of Americans. With daily COVID case counts now the lowest since last year and hospitals seeing less coronavirus hospitalizations, most states, including Rhode Island, are now opening up.

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest Stress in AmericaTM poll (findings released on March 11, 2021), the nation’s health crisis is far from over. Just one year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, many adults report increased negative behaviors, such as undesired changes to their weight and increased drinking, that may be related to their inability to cope with prolonged stress.

APA’s survey of U.S. adults, conducted in late February 2021 by The Harris Poll, shows that a majority of adults (61 percent) experienced undesired weight changes—weight gain or loss—since the pandemic started, with 42 percent reporting they gained more weight than they intended. Of these individuals, they gained an average of 29 pounds (the median amount gained was 15 pounds) and 10 percent stated they gained more than 50 pounds, noted the poll’s findings.

Gaining Weight Bad for Your Health

Weight changes come with significant health risks, including higher vulnerability to serious illness from COVID-19.  According to the National Institute of Health, people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes mellitus and coronary heart disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke. 

For the 18 percent of Americans who said they lost more weight than they wanted to, the average amount of weight lost was 26 pounds (median amount lost was 12 pounds). Adult respondents also reported unwanted changes in sleep patterns and increased alcohol consumption. Two in 3 (67 percent) said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started. Nearly 1 in 4 adults (or 23 percent) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.

“We’ve been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma and isolation that Americans are experiencing. This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer, in a March 21st statement announcing the results of the study’s findings. 

Evans calls on health and policy leaders to come together quickly to provide additional behavioral health supports as part of any national recovery plan.

The researchers found that the pandemic took a particularly heavy toll on parents of children under 18-years old. While slightly more than 3 in 10 adults (31 percent) reported their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic, nearly half of mothers who still have children home for remote learning (47 percent) say that their mental health has worsened; 30 percent of the fathers who still have children home said the same. 

APA’s study also found that parents were more likely than those without children to have received treatment from a mental health professional (32 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic began (24 percent vs. 9 percent). More than half of fathers (55 percent) reported gaining weight, and nearly half (48 percent) said they are drinking more alcohol to cope with stress.

As to essential workers, (either persons working in health care or law enforcement), the majority said that they relied on a lot of unhealthy habits to get through the year-long pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent said their mental health has worsened, while 3 in 4 (75 percent) said they could have used more emotional support than they received since the pandemic began. Essential workers were more than twice as likely as adults who were not essential workers to have received treatment from a mental health professional (34 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic started (25 percent vs. 9 percent).

Furthermore, people of color noted that unintended physical changes occurred during the pandemic. Hispanic adults were most likely to report undesired changes to sleep (78 percent Hispanic vs. 76 percent Black, 63 percent white and 61 percent Asian), physical activity levels (87 percent Hispanic vs. 84 percent Black, 81 percent Asian and 79 percent white) and weight (71 percent Hispanic vs. 64 percent Black, 58 percent white and 54 percent Asian) since the beginning of the pandemic.

Black Americans were most likely to report feelings of concern about the future, say the researchers, noting that more than half said they do not feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic (54 percent Black vs. 48 percent Hispanic, 45 percent Asian and 44 percent white).  They also feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends (57 percent Black vs. 51 percent Asian, 50 percent Hispanic and 47 percent white).

“It’s clear that the pandemic is continuing to have a disproportionate effect on certain groups,” said APA President Jennifer Kelly, PhD. “We must do more to support communities of color, essential workers and parents as they continue to cope with the demands of the pandemic and start to show the physical consequences of prolonged stress,” says Kelly.

COVID-19’s Impact on Seniors

A newly released AARP study, released on May 10, 2021, has found that more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, most adults age 50 and older say that it has had a negative impact on their mental health. Researchers found that seven in 10 older adults reported an increase in sadness or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly 8 in 10 said they had increased concern about the future, worry or anxiety. Half of adults 50 and older reported feelings of anxiety in the last two weeks, and 56% noted difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, say the study’s findings.

“If you are feeling stressed and anxious after the last year, you are far from alone!” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in a statement announcing the survey results. “As our survey highlights, most older adults’ mental health and wellbeing was affected by the pandemic—and some of the ways we coped might not have been great for our health, either. With many communities returning to normal, we hope older adults will consider taking steps to reclaim their health this spring and summer,” she said.

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the AARP study findings, seniors are responding to the increased stress in a variety of ways. About one in four of the respondents reported they are eating comfort foods or “unhealthy foods” like chips and candy more often than before the pandemic. And 27 percent of people 50 and over have increased the time they spend praying or meditating. One in 10 survey respondents reported seeking mental health care in the last year, a third of whom did so specifically because of the pandemic. Overall, 15 percent of older adults said that experiencing the pandemic made them more likely to seek help from a mental health provider if they had concerns.

AARP’s survey also highlighted how the pandemic increased loneliness and isolation among those age 50 and over.  Among older adults, 58 percent reported feeling increased loneliness, and 62 percent were less likely to socialize with friends and family compared to before the pandemic.

Fixing Access to Internet as Tech Usage Surges Among Seniors During Pandemic

Published in Pawtucket Times on May 10, 2021

Over a year where a global pandemic has significantly reduced social interaction, technology becomes more important than ever, especially for home bound seniors. A newly released 39-page report from the Washington, DC-based AARP found that more older adults (44 percent) view tech more positively as a way to stay connected than they did before COVID-19. The findings indicate that 4 out of 5 adults age 50 and over-relied on technology to stay connected and in contact with family and friends.

Yet, the researchers found that the greater adoption and reliance on technology is uneven because 15 percent of adults 50 and over do not have access to any type of internet, and 60 percent say the cost of high-speed internet is a problem.

Pandemic Increases Use of Technology

“Technology-enabled older adults to better weather the isolation of the pandemic, from ordering groceries to telehealth visits to connecting with loved ones,” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in an April 21 statement announcing the release of the report, 2021 Tech Trends and the 50+: Top 10 Big Trends. “But it also exacerbated the divide. So much more is done online, and the 38 million disconnected older adults are being further left out,” she says. 

The report’s findings indicate that annual tech spending by those age 50 and over exponentially increased – from $394 to $1144. The top three tech purchases were smartphones, smart TVs, and earbuds/Bluetooth headsets. 

According to the researchers, using technology to connect with family and friends across multiple forms of communication has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many say they are using video chats (45 percent), texting (37 percent), emailing (26 percent), and phone (29 percent) more now than before the pandemic’s onset. As of 2019, about half had never even used video chat, but one year later they did. Seventy percent have, with 1 in 3 using video chat weekly. Tech use among the age 50 plus community increased particularly in wearable devices – from 17 percent to 27 percent.

The AARP study’s findings indicate that the older participant’s use of smartphones increased dramatically, especially among the homebound. For instance, use for ordering groceries grew from just 6 percent to 24 percent; use for personal health increased from 28 percent to 40 percent for activities like telehealth visits, ordering prescriptions, or even making appointments; use for health and fitness information increased 25 percent to 44 percent and use for financial transactions increased 37 percent to 53 percent.

Weekly use of streaming increased to 58 percent from 44 percent, a significant shift in how the 50+ consume entertainment says the researchers.

Although the study’s researchers also found that half of the age 50 plus wanted to learn more about using tech (54 percent), cost (38 percent), awareness/lack of knowledge (37 percent), and privacy concerns (34 percent) were the top self-reported barriers holding them back from adopting and using the new technology.  

“Privacy concerns continue to be a factor when it comes to using tech, with 83 percent lacking confidence that what they do online remains private,” says the researchers.   

Bringing U.S. Broadband Networks to Millions of Americans

According to Washington, DC-based Free Press, a nonprofit group that is part of the media reform or media democracy movement, more than 77 million Americans lack adequate internet service at home, either because they do not have access or can’t afford it.  

Because of the “stark digital divide,” a much a higher percentage of white families use home broadband internet than Black or Latino families. The ongoing pandemic clearly showed these disparities, particularly for students who struggled to connect while learning remotely, compounding learning loss and social isolation for those students.

Although Congress has already included $3.2 billion in emergency funding for broadband access in the 2021 COVID-19 Stimulus Bill this year, President Biden has called for more funding to increase access to the nation’s U.S. Broadband Networks. Biden recently unveiled the American Jobs Plan Act of 2021, a $ 2.3 trillion infrastructure package, which includes $100 billion in funding to build affordable, reliable high-speed broadband infrastructure throughout the nation to reach 100 percent coverage, as a goal. It would also ensure that all Americans have lower costs for the internet.

Biden’s proposal would build “future proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved (rural and tribal lands) and underserved areas to reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage. It calls for reducing the cost of broadband to allow anyone who wants high-quality and reliable broadband internet to afford it and to promote widespread adoption. It funds the building of high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage, bringing access to unserved and underserved areas across the nation. It would also promote price transparency and competition among internet providers. This would be accomplished by lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.

The internet item falls within a broader “infrastructure proposal”. Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls for the passage of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, stating: “I’m especially pleased that President Biden’s American Jobs Plan addresses some of our most pressing priorities here in Rhode Island. It will rebuild our national transportation infrastructure by modernizing 20,000 miles of roads and doubling federal support for public transit. It will put us on track towards a more sustainable future by electrifying our transportation system and building a network of half a million electric vehicle charging stations. It will ensure every American has access to clean drinking water by replacing lead service lines and pipes that still serve up to ten million homes in our country. It will double the number of registered apprenticeships so that more Americans can take advantage of the jobs this plan creates.” 

It’s Time to Seriously Negotiate

GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, along with members of their Caucuses, are united in their opposition to the passage of Biden’s infrastructure proposal. An insurmountable wedge was created by the bill’s expansive definition of infrastructure, to includes major funding investments for transportation, housing, eldercare workforce development, and access to broadband, to name a few. It even includes climate change policies, too. GOP lawmakers have a very narrow definition. Simply put, they say just include funding to fix roads, bridges, ports and waterways, and expanding broadband.  

Ultimately, another deal-breaker is how the costly legislative proposal is paid for. Biden calls for the costs to be offset by a corporate tax increase while Republicans see user fees such as road-related taxes and unspent COVID-19 relief funding, to cover costs.

Speaking recently at a press conference at the University of Louisville, McConnell said Democrats should expect “zero” support from the GOP for Biden’s big-ticket infrastructure and social spending proposal. He called on Democrats to support a Senate GOP counteroffer to Biden’s costly infrastructure proposal, costing a mere $568 billion (for roads and bridges, ports, waterways and expanded broadband).

There are many provisions of Biden’s American Jobs Plan of 2021 that both Republicans and Democrats agree on, including investing in roads, bridges, rail lines, ports electricity grid improvements, and increasing access to broadband. Biden says “he’s prepared to negotiate” the cost of the package and how it is paid for. 

So, it’s now time for McCarthy and McConnell to step up to the negotiating table to address their political and philosophical differences over Biden’s definition of infrastructure and funding.

It’s time to send a bipartisan infrastructure bill to Biden to sign.

·For more details about AARP’s Tech Study, go to https://press.aarp.org/2021-4-21-Tech-Usage-Among-Older-Adults-Skyrockets-During-Pandemic.

Whitehouse Pushes for COVID-19 Senate Proposal to Protect Residents, Employees

Published in the Pawtucket Times on March 1, 2021

As the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic approaches, U.S Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joins Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in introducing a legislative proposal to save lives of nursing home residents and employees and assist with vaccinations.   At press time, over 1.3 million nursing residents and workers in long-term care facilities have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 170,000 have died so far, accounting for approximately 35 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

Taking a Close Look at S.333

Last week, S.333, “The COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” was thrown into the legislative hopper.  Initially introduced last Congress, the latest version, now being considered by the Senate Finance Committee, would provide funding to give nursing homes the needed resources to keep residents and workers safe; funding would go towards providing vital infection control assistance and organizing local health and emergency workers – known as “strike” or “surge” teams – to manage COVID-19 outbreaks and care for residents.  At this time no House companion measure has been introduced.

S. 333, introduced on Feb. 22, would provide $210 million for the Secretary of HHS to contract with quality improvement organizations to provide essential infection control assistance to nursing homes. 

Moreover, the legislative proposal would also send $750 million in funding to states to implement “strike” or “surge” teams. States are using “strike” or “surge” teams to ensure a sufficient number of aides, nurses and other providers are available to care for residents. Such teams also help manage COVID-19 outbreaks within a facility, particularly as vaccinations proceed in these settings. Since August, approximately 20 percent of nursing homes have reported each week that they do not have a sufficient workforce to care for residents.”

The impact of the pandemic has been devastating to minority communities, where reports have indicated that facilities serving significant numbers of Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely to have COVID-19 infections. S. 333 would require the HHS Secretary to collect and make public demographic data on COVID-19 cases and deaths, including information on age, race, ethnicity, and preferred language. 

Whitehouse supports President Joe Biden’s call for the implementation of strike teams in his American Rescue Plan to help address these persistent shortages as well as the collection and dissemination of data on suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths by race, ethnicity and preferred language.

Controlling COVID-19 Outbreaks in the Nation’s Nursing Homes

“Nursing home residents and staff have been through a traumatic year,” said Whitehouse who sites on the Senate Finance Committee.  “We need to prioritize vaccinating and caring for the Americans who live and work in these settings.  That means providing additional staff as needed to control outbreaks and making sure every resident and care worker who wants a vaccine can get one.,” said the Rhode Island’s junior Senator who has served since Jan. 4, 2007.

“As more than 170,000 residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died from COVID-19, it is critical that Congress pass the COVID-19 Nursing Home Protection Act,” says Sen. Bob Casey, Chair of the U.S. Special Committee on Aging.

“This bill would address persistent staffing shortages in nursing homes by utilizing strike teams, promote infection control protocols and require that demographic data is collected on COVID-19 cases and deaths,” notes Casey.

Adds Casey, “The challenge this terrible virus poses are unprecedented and requires an immediate and extraordinary response. That is why my colleagues and I are advancing strategies to give states what they need – funding for ‘strike’ teams to help address staffing shortages in nursing homes and assist with vaccinations in these settings. We have an obligation to protect our most at-risk citizens.”

 “We applaud the efforts of Senator Whitehouse and his colleagues to provide funding for the protection of nursing home residents and staff,” said Scott Fraser, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Care Association, an affiliate of the Washington, DC-based American Health Care Association.  “We are especially pleased with the creation of strike teams to address the critical issue of staffing shortages during times of crisis.  This is a suggestion that RIHCA brought to Senator Whitehouse’s attention this past Spring when our homes were in critical need of additional staff due to the pandemic.  We thank him for listening and taking action,” he says.

At press time, 12 Democratic Senators join Sens. Whitehouse, Casey, Warnock, Blumenthal, and Booker, becoming cosponsors to this legislation.  They are: Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jack Reed (D-RI), Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI). 

A Call for Bipartisan Support

With the Senate now under Democratic control, there is a good chance that S. 333 will be considered by the Senate Finance Committee and if passed sent to the floor for consideration.   During the 116th Congressional session, the former Senate GOP Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, who often called himself the “Grim Reaper,” sent Democratic legislation to a legislative graveyard, refusing to act on Democratic legislation, even proposals with bipartisan support.

It’s time for Senate Republicans to support a Democratic proposal that protects the health and safety and the wellbeing of nursing home residents and workers in the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes. 

Partisan politics shouldn’t play a role in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to not urge his caucus to support this worthy legislative proposal.  S. 333 truly deserves bipartisan support and enactment, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.