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.

CDC: Rhode Island Hit with Widespread Flu

Published in the Woonsocket Call on January 6, 2018

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says it’s a no brainer as to what issue I should cover this week. Being homebound for three or four days, with the flu, and my submittal deadline looming, I pen my commentary on widespread flu activity now being reported in Rhode Island.

CDC’s Influenza surveillance (ending Week 52) reported widespread influenza “flu” activity in 24 states including Rhode Island. This CDC warning recently triggered a requirement by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH} to require unvaccinated healthcare workers in a variety of health care settings to wear masks when entering a person’s room, serving food, or participating with patients in group activities.

The masking requirement helps protect healthcare workers from catching the flu, and helps protects patients who are often dealing with other serious health issues,” said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH., in a statement released on January 2. “For people who have not been vaccinated yet, it is not too late. Flu vaccine is the single best way to keep yourself and the people you love safe from the flu. Getting vaccinated today will provide you with months of protection,” she says.

According to the RIDOH, typical flu symptoms include having a fever, coughing, a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people also may have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu, and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.

There are many types of illnesses or injuries even less severe cases of the flu do not require a visit to the emergency room, says RIDOH, noting that less severe cases of the flu will be treated more promptly by a primary care provider or in urgent care facilities. The department notes that going to an emergency room can oftentimes result in long waits because emergency room providers prioritize more serious injuries and medical conditions.

But, when do you seek out treatment for a nasty case of the flu? RIDOH says that difficulty in breathing or shortness in health, pain or pressure in the chest and having flu-like symptoms that improve and return with a fever and worse cough are clear warning signs to go immediately to an emergency room.

CDC expects that increased flu activity in the coming weeks, noting that the average duration of a flu season for the last five seasons has been 16 weeks, with a range of 11 weeks to 20 weeks. With significant flu still to come this season, CDC continues to recommend that anyone who has not yet gotten a flu vaccine this season should get vaccinated now. It takes approximately two weeks for the protection provided by vaccination to begin.

Although 480,000 Rhode Islanders were vaccinated last year, RIDOH, says that the flu sent 1,390 Rhode Islanders to the hospital and resulted in 60 deaths (compared to 1,216 hospitalizations and 33 deaths the previous year. The state saw more flu activity during the 2017-2018 flu season than during any flu season since the 2019-2010 season, when the state experienced the state experienced the H1N1 flu pandemic.

It’s Not too Late to Get Vaccination

In kicking off Rhode Island’s annual flu vaccination campaign last October, RIDOH Director Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, said, “A flu shot is the single best way to protect yourself and the ones you love against the flu. When you get a flu shot you are not only protecting yourself, you are also protecting the people in your life by limiting the spread of the flu.”

So, if you have not been vaccinated, consider doing so. RIDOH recommends that children older than 6 months of age should be vaccinated against the flu. Others should, too., including health care workers, pregnant women, people over age 50, nursing facility residents and persons with chronic conditions (specifically heart, lung, or kidney disease, diabetes, asthma, anemia, blood disorders, or weakened immune systems).

It’s easily to quickly get a flu shot because of its availability at doctors’ offices and pharmacies throughout Rhode Island.

In addition to getting a flu shot, here are a few simple tips that can help prevent you from getting the flu.

Wash your hands thoroughly throughout the day, using warm water and soap. If you do not have soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand gel.

According to the CDC, the flu can spread to others up to about 6 feet away, by droplets made when a person cough, sneezes or talks. So, reduce spreading the flu, just by coughing or sneezing into your elbow or into a tissue.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or month because germs spread this way.

Get a good night’s sleep, be physically active and look for ways to manage your stress. Also, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Keep surfaces wiped down, especially bedside tables, surfaces in the bathroom, and toys for children, by wiping them down with a household disinfectant.