Bill Protects Nursing Home Residents, Providers

Published in the Pawtucket Times on June 1, 2020

This month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) throw a bill in the legislative hopper to slow the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes. It’s a common-sense legislative proposal and needed.

A recently released Kaiser Family Foundation study reported, “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities.”

Combatting COVID-19 in Congregate Settings

With COVID-19 quickly spreading throughout the nation’s nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, Casey and Whitehouse’s legislative proposal, S. 3768, The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act, seeks 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. According to an analysis conducted by Gregg Girvan for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as of May 22, in the 39 states that currently report such figures, 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities

As more than 20,000 nursing homes residents and workers have died due to COVID-19, according to the latest reports, on May 19, 2020, Casey and Whitehouse introduced S.3768 to help states, nursing homes and intermediate care facilities put the brakes on the spreading of the deadly COVID-19. The legislative proposal, with 14 Democratic cosponsors (including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed}, 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.

S. 3768 was referred to Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As of March 30, 2020, a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate or this measure has not been received.

Days after the introduction of 25-page Senate legislative proposal, a House version (H.R. 6972) was introduced by Rep. Ana G. Eshoo (D-CA), cosponsored by Reps. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-IL), Donna E. Shalala (D-FL), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Seth Moulton (D-MA) and David N. Cicilline (D-RI). The House bill was referred to House Energy and Commerce

“This virus spares no state, no county, no facility. The unprecedented crisis unfolding in our Nation’s nursing homes demands an immediate, extraordinary response. Reports indicate nursing home residents and workers account for roughly 1 in 4 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States,” said Casey, who serves as Ranking Member of the U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, in a statement announcing the bill’s introduction. “The Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act would provide $20 billion in emergency funding [for staffing, testing, Personal Protective Equipment, etc.] to devise a sorely needed national, coordinated response to stem the spread of this terrible virus in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities,” notes Casey.

According to Casey, the Senate bill would also require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop guidance on cohorting best practices, including on how to safeguard resident rights. It would also instruct HHS to collect and publish data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes and intermediate care facilities, and finally fund surge teams of nurses, aides, and other critical staff to fill in at facilities where multiple residents and staff members have been infected.

“COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the more than 1.3 million Americans, including more than 7,000 Rhode Islanders, who live in nursing homes,” says Whitehouse, noting that frontline staff across the nation are “doing heroic work under very challenging circumstances.”

“We need to get vastly more personal protective equipment and tests to nursing homes, which care for the patients who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Our legislation would also help states fund surge teams, sending additional staff reinforcements to facilities where they are needed to care for patients and prevent infection,” adds Whitehouse.

Before S. 3768 was officially introduced, in early March, Washington, DC-based AARP announced its support for the Senate proposal. “AARP supports the draft of the Nursing Home COVID-19 Protection and Prevention Act that would help protect the health and save the lives of people in nursing homes and other facilities by supporting testing, personal protective equipment, staffing and more,” said Megan O’Reilly, Vice President of Government Affairs for AARP. “The proposal would also improve public transparency and help protect the rights of residents and their families, adds O’Reilly, calling on Congress “to act immediately to stem the loss of life and slow the spread of the virus.”

In the House Chamber, Rhode Island’s Cicilline, a member of the House Democratic Leadership as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has also pushed for Congressional funding to stop the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes. The fifth term Congressman has called for additional funding for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in the next package for congregate care facilities, including nursing homes. He also signed a letter to HHS Secretary Azar and Administrator Verma, of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), urging that HHS and the CMS to ensure that a significant portion of the newly allocated $25 billion for testing in the recently passed CARES Act be utilized for testing in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities.

State-wide Efforts to Combat COVID-19 in Nursing Homes

With Governor Gina Raimondo declaring a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, with the COVID-19 arriving in Rhode Island, the deadly pandemic virus spread quickly throughout the state’s nursing homes. At press time, it has been reported that 75 percent of all related COVID-19 deaths are in nursing homes.

According to Joseph Wendelken, Public Information’s Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), the state moved quickly to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community and in nursing homes. He stated: “We curtailed and then prohibited visiting early on, and we have been doing extensive testing in every assisted living facility in the state. We are doing cyclical testing, meaning that we are continually testing all residents in all homes on a rotating basis. We are giving tailored infection control guidance to specific homes, and we are helping them procure additional PPE.”

Adds Wendelken, RIDOH has established two COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Homes [at Oak Hill Center in Pawtucket and Oakland Grove Health Care Center in Woonsocket] to be a COVID-19 Specialty Nursing Home. “These are centralized facilities to accept patients who are being discharged from the hospital and who are COVID-19 positive but no longer require acute-level care. This strategy allows COVID-19 positive patients leaving the hospital to receive specialized rehabilitation and step-down, post-acute care while reserving hospital beds for patients who need acute-level care,” he said.

On Smith Hill, the Rhode Island House Republican Caucus has recently called for members of the House Committee on Oversight to meet to address the increasing COVID-19 death rate in the state’s nursing and assisted living facilities.

Putting Politics Aside…

With less than 156 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, will S. 3768 reach the Senate floor for a vote. Since the beginning of 2019, more than 350 House-passed bills—including hundreds that have bipartisan support—have been buried by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) in his legislative graveyard. With no Republican Senators supporting Casey and Whitehouse’s COVID-19 bill, will it even reach the Senate floor for a vote?

It’s time for McConnell, who has called himself the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation, to lay down his deadly scythe, making the safety of millions of residents who reside in the nation’s 15,583 skilled nursing facilities a legislative priority. The GOP Senator from Kentucky, who is in a close Senate race with Democratic opponent Amy McGrath, might consider putting politics aside during a raging COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the nation to work with Senate Democrats to protect frail residents and nursing home staff. Kentucky voters might view protecting residents against COVID a bipartisan issue.

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.

Religious Groups Urge House to Combat Antisemitism and Racism

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 10, 2019

For the second year in a row, the Rhode Island General Assembly’s Senate Judiciary Committee heard a resolution, introduced by State Senator Donna Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket), calling on lawmakers to denounce and oppose white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups. The resolution was co-sponsored by Senators Samuel Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence), Joshua Miller (Democrat, District 28, Cranston), Gayle Goldin (Democrat, District 3, Providence) and Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence),

The initial resolution, introduced in 2017, urged state police to consider White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups as terrorists. Because of First Amendment concerns expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island that resolution was held for further study, and the language was reworked this run so as not to run afoul of free speech concerns.

Senate Moves to Fight Antisemitism and Racial Intolerance Head On

At the May 30 hearing, Nesselbush (Democrat, District 15, Pawtucket) pushed for passage of S0829, a resolution calling on Rhode Island to “denounce and oppose and the totalitarian impulses, violent terrorism, xenophobic’ biases, and bigoted ideologies that are promoted by white nationalists and neo-Nazis.” She reminded the Senate panel that Rhode Island was founded on Roger William’s principles of religious tolerance, and the state should denounce any type of white supremacy or neo-Nazism and take a stand for religious freedom and tolerance.

Nesslebush’s Senate resolution unanimously passed in Senate Judiciary Committee and ultimately on the Senate Floor. With its passage, no further action is required and the resolution will be transmitted to the Secretary of State, who is charged in the resolution with transmitting certified copies of the resolution to President Donald J. Trump, the members of the Rhode Island Congressional delegation, and Governor Gina Raimondo.

When asked about a House companion resolution that denounces and opposes White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups, Larry Berman, the House’s Director of Communication, says that Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (Democrat, District 59, Pawtucket) had planned to introduce one but “because it was getting late in the session” he was unable to get his bill introduced. It should be noted that Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio allowed Nesselbush to introduce her Senate resolution recognizing its merit and importance to the Jewish community.

Calls for the House to Confront the Boldness of Hate Groups

As the House is poised to release its anticipated state budget, religious groups and supporters of Nesselbush’s resolution, call for the lower chamber to take a strong stand to denounce and oppose White Nationalists and Neo Nazi groups.

As President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, being active and serving as Rabbi at Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Sarah Mack, says it’s not too late for the to take a stand against antisemitism. “As Jews, we fight against bigotry and extremism because as a people we have experienced the danger of hate firsthand. While it is important to focus on extremism in all of its forms, we appreciate this resolution that calls attention to white supremacists, neo-Nazis and their hateful agenda. Because of this, I am so thankful to the Senate for passing this resolution, and I beseech our House leadership to do the same.”

Adds Adam Greenman, President and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, “we are committed to combating hatred in all forms. This resolution would give our state the opportunity to stand up against groups that promote anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other forms of toxic and dangerous rhetoric. We ask those in the House of Representatives to join us in supporting this resolution.”

Rev. Dr. Donnie Anderson, Executive Minister, of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, notes the importance for the House to support Nesslebush’s Senate resolution to fight hate. “In recent years hate speech has found a new platform in social media and is flourishing in the current political climate. This explosion of hate DEMANDS a response from our political leaders. Rhode Island is blessed with wonderful interfaith leaders who interact on a regular basis and have built an atmosphere of caring, respect and trust. This group consistently and often speaks against hate, but we need to hear from ALL of our political leaders. We urge passage of this timely and thoughtful resolution.”

Steve Ahlquist, a reporter at UpriseRI, a Rhode Island news web site covering progressive issues, testified in support of Nesselbush’s Senate resolution, gives his two cents about the importance of politicians combating hate groups. Ahlquist stressed, “Though this resolution is largely symbolic and does not have the force of law, it is important nonetheless that our elected officials ally themselves with Rhode Islanders most at risk of white supremacist violence. It has been documented by myself and others that these groups have twice come to our state to engage in violence, and have promised to return. Residents of Rhode Island need to know that our elected officials will have our backs when they are confronting these hate groups.”

“Our elected officials should be eager to repudiate white supremacy and neo-Nazism. There has been violence done and violence planned in Rhode Island by hate groups visiting our state. There has been and hate crimes at synagogues and mosques. The Senate passed a resolution with ease. It is truly the least we can expect from the House to follow suit,” says Ahlquist.

Rhode Island Religious Community Takes a Stand

For years, it has been reported that antisemitism is becoming firmly entrenched in the Ocean State. In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of antisemitism in Rhode Island. Nazi swastikas were painted on a Providence building, at Broad Rock Middle School in North Kingstown, and even at a Pawtucket synagogue in Oakhill, just a five-minute walk from my house, reported Rhode Island’s largest daily.

When I testified for passage of Senate Resolution 0829, I told the Senators that I often wondered what I would have done if I stood on a street in Germany in 1938 seeing all those windows broken (during a two-day pogrom, referred to as Kristallnacht. Would I have the courage or the gumption to go up to somebody dressed in a brown shirt with a swastika armband and stop him from hitting an elderly Jew?
Hopefully yes, but who knows.

But, on May 30, 2019, at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, I sat beside Sen. Nesselbush and Steve Ahlquist as we “took a stand,” calling on the Committee to pass S 082. Knowing the wisdom in denouncing and opposing the hateful philosophy of white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups that is becoming all too common in Rhode Island, the Senate took its stand.

After all, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams on the principle of religious tolerance, and we’re the home of America’s oldest synagogue, the Touro Synagogue, in Newport. What does it say to the nation, and especially to the state’s Jewish, racial, ethnic, LGTBQ communities if the House does not take an opportunity to oppose and denounce hate in their own backyard?

Hopefully, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello will reconsider allowing a resolution, with no fiscal cost, to be introduced to give House lawmakers, like their Senate colleagues, an opportunity to oppose white nationalists and neo-Nazi groups. It is important for both chambers to take a legislative stand to combat the rising incidence of antisemitism and racist incidents. The resolution serves the purpose of sending the message, hate groups who are planning to come to Rhode Island to cause violence are not welcome here.