HHS Climate and Health Outlook tackles climate-related hazards

Published in RINews Today on July 25, 2022

Over two and a half months ago, the Biden administration launched a new initiative, called the Climate and Health Outlook, to serve as a resource to help people, health professionals, and communities protect individual and community health impacted by climate events.

On May 6, 2022, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Climate Change and Health Equity (OCCHE) launched the first installment of its new public information series called the Climate Health Outlook – https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/climate-health-outlook-may-2022.pdf (Outlook). HHS’s new Outlook series connects weather forecasts to health resources to create actionable data they say will saves lives and reduces illness and health risks associated with climate-related hazards like extreme heat, wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and vector-borne diseases that impact human health.

According to HHS, this inaugural edition of the Outlook will take on extreme heat, which has been a key target of the Biden administration’s efforts to build resilience to the impacts of climate change. As part of this and future editions, the Outlook series will add a health lens to seasonal weather and climate outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to inform health professionals and the public about weather- and climate-related health risks months in advance and provide resources to prepare.

“We’ve seen what exposure to extreme heat can do,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement announcing the new federal initiative. “It can lead to illness and death and makes it much harder to do a day’s work outdoors. Many people in the United States have jobs that require them to work outside to feed their families regardless of the weather. Our new Climate and Health Outlook protects people and their health by giving advance notice to the communities that will be most impacted in the coming months.” she said.

“Our communities across the country will soon be facing heatwaves that will be an additional strain on our health systems,” adds  Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine. “This information will save lives when used by public health officials, employers with outdoor workers, and schools and local health departments and the individuals they serve. Having information in advance can reduce illness and deaths from extreme heat exposure,” she says.

The Outlook illustrates where the greatest health risks from heat will be in the United States during the early 2022 heat season, presenting estimates of which U.S. counties are expected to experience extremely hot days and identifies the vulnerable populations in those counties that could be impacted by heat exposure. It also provides a set of actionable resources from HHS that are targeted to the public, specific populations, health care professionals, and public health officials to reduce health risks from heat.

HHS says that the Outlook will be updated and improved regularly as future data and feedback are collected. Future editions will address other climate-related threats to the health of people living in the United States, with a focus on those most vulnerable. For a copy of  HHS’s Office of Climate Change and Health Equity’s May issue of Climate and Health Outlook: Extreme Heat, go  to https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/climate-health-outlook-may-2022.pdf.

On a Personal Note… Surviving the Dog Days of Summer

Just days ago, Rhode Island officials announced its first heat wave  It took 3 days of 90 degrees or above to make this call. 

Despite the fact that 618 people throughout the nation killed by extreme heat annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable.  

The following tips provided by CDC’s website provide sound tips for helping us stay safe when the temperatures soar.

During an ongoing heat wave, seniors, infants and young children, and people with mental illness, those overweight, and chronic diseases (including heart disease) are at the highest risk of heat-induced illness that can cause a person to become confused or lose consciousness. Seek medical attention immediately for anyone showing signs of heat stroke. Heat stroke can be life-threatening.

With temperatures rising, wear appropriate clothing that is lightweight, light-colored and loose fitting. 

During extreme heat and humidity, stay in your air-conditioned house or air-conditioned room, if you have that option. Electric fans may provide temporary comfort, but when the outside temperature soars into the high 90s, they won’t prevent heat-related illnesses. Try taking a cool shower or bath. 

Keep in mind: Use your stove and oven less during the heatwave to reduce the inside temperature. Try traveling to an air-conditioned place like a shopping mall, movie theatre, or even go to your local library or cooling shelter? Each city and town, or one nearby, should have cooling centers open. In Providence pools and splash pads have extended hours. For a listing of cooling shelters by city and town, go to https://riema.ri.gov/planning-mitigation/resources-businesses/cooling-centers  (If you need additional assistance call 2-1-1). Even being in a cool space for just a few hours can help your body stay cooler when you have to go back outside.

During a heatwave, go to your local gym to exercise so you can limit your outdoor activities. If you go outside, do this in the morning or evening hours when it’s cool. Start your working or exercise slowly and slowly pick up the pace. If the heat makes your heart pound and you gasp for breath, stop all activity. Go immediately to a shady area especially if you become lightheaded, confused, weak or faint, to cool off, this will allow your body to recover from the heat. Drink water.

Sunburn can affect your body’s ability to cool down and can make you dehydrated. So, when going outside, wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and put on sunscreen of SPF 15 (“broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection”) or higher 30 minutes before going outside.  Continue to reapply it according to the package directions. 

Hot heavy meals can heat up your body. When going outside drink plenty of fluids, regardless of how active you are.  Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink. Most important, if your doctor limits the amount you drink or has you on water pills, ask how much you should drink while the weather is hot.

Also, stay away from very sugary or alcoholic drinks because they cause you to lose more body fluid. You might consider avoiding cold drinks, because they can cause stomach cramps. Room temperature water is better now.

Finally, heavy sweating removes salt and minerals from your body, and they need to be replaced.  A sports drink can replace the salt and minerals you lose when sweating. If you are on a low-salt diet, have diabetes, high blood pressure, or other chronic conditions, always talk with your doctor before drinking a sports beverage or taking salt tablets. 

Do not leave children or your pets in cars that can quickly heat up to dangerously high temperatures even with a window cracked open. You put them at risk of getting heat stroke or dying. If you leave your pets outside, leave them plenty of water and in a shaded area. Watch metal pieces in your car, like seatbelts, which can heat up to unbelievably high – and even burning to the skin – temperatures.

During a heat wave, always visit or get in touch with older adults (family or friends) at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children, of course, need much more frequent watching.

For CDC’s website page on “Extreme Heat” go to https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/.

For warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illness and what to do, go  to https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/warning.html.

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.