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.

AARP Rhode Island Web Report Puts Spotlight on Hunger

Published December 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Especially during the holiday festivities this week the plight of Rhode Island’s hungry seniors in Providence’s West End Community and throughout the Ocean State, may have remained hidden to many Rhode Islanders, especially at Christmas Dinner, who gathered with families and friends to eat turkey, ham, the fixings, topped off with delicious pastries, and even pies.

But with the funding support of AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger, AARP Rhode Island officially launches its Hungry in the West End investigative web report next week, to ratchet up the public’s awareness that seniors do go hungry every day in this Providence neighborhood and throughout Rhode Island’s 39 Cities and Towns.

Executive Director, Kathleen S. Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, notes that, according the USDA statistics, 67,000 Rhode Island households are considered “food insecure,” which means families do not always have the financial ability to purchase adequate food. “Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of Rhode Island households,” she adds, “receive SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits.

Targeting the West End of Providence

According to Connell, the West End of Providence is the city’s — and the state’s – most economically challenged community. The unemployment rate among its largely Hispanic population exceeds 20 percent, more than double the state average, she says.

Connell adds that hidden in the West End are the “elderly hungry,” whose “food insecurity” is reflected in the number of people who must rely on the federal SNAP program, Meals on Wheels, congregate meals sites at senior centers and neighborhood food pantries to eat.

To get the story out about Senior hunger, former journalist and now AARP Rhode Island’s Director of Communications, John Martin, worked closely with former Providence Journal reporter, Jody McPhillips to investigate and put this issue on the radar screen of the general public as well as the Rhode Island General Assembly and state policy makers.

One disturbing fact came to light during Martin and McPhillips’ interviews, is that resources to relieve hunger are “stretched thin. Federal and state funding to end hunger have not kept pace with the problem. For instance, the Rhode Island General Assembly funding for Meals on Wheels is below funding levels of four years ago, before the nation’s worst recession began.

The Web-based reports, to premiere on Friday, January 4, 2013 at http://www.aarp.org/ri, clearly showcase this daunting domestic issue. What you will see are McPhillips’s eight separate stories, added one per day, many parts of which are supplemented by links to Martin’s videos. They range from extended interviews with McPhillips’s sources, to vignettes shot on various locations, including at the Rhode Island Food Bank, with a Meals on Wheels driver, at food pantries and senior centers, and at the Sodexo family food weekend backpacks program. Also, Martin has put together an overarching video in documentary form that will be posted on the site in segments ranging from four to five minutes each.

Before next week’s premiere you can watch a video preview of this project at – the Web site listed above.

Hunger, One of America’s Biggest Domestic Issues

Connell says that “Hunger and goes hand in hand with a host of serious health consequences – including diabetes, depression, even malnutrition. These are big issues that America faces today. It’s not just a ‘senior problem,’ it’s a societal problem, too. As someone has posted on our Facebook page, senior hunger is simply a disgrace.

“One of our conclusions [noted in the Web-based reports] is that that a lot is being done to help address senior hunger. But federal and state money is not a one-sized fits all solution. For the truly isolated seniors – especially those with disabilities and health issues — well-stocked food pantries may not be a practical resource,” noted Connell.

“We think people who read and watch Hungry in the West End will reach their own conclusions about how we tackle this on a one-to-one basis. It’s a call to action for people to be more aware of senior hunger and to reach out personally to those who might need help,” says Connell.

Connell asks: “Is there someone you can check on? Can you offer someone a ride to the supermarket when you go shopping? Or offer to pick something up? Can you visit a food pantry on their behalf? Perhaps you can ask if they would like some help in signing up for Meals on Wheels or applying for SNAP.”

Connell even knows of a group in one Rhode Island community where “volunteering” means preparing an extra meal each week for someone in need.

For AARP Rhode Island’s John Martin, “I can only say it has been a privilege to become better educated about senior hunger in Rhode Island. Jody and I met scores of people making a difference. But we also saw the great need that is out there. Each step of the way, however, we kept questioning who we were missing. The sad fact is that isolated seniors – by definition – can be all but invisible. In fact, one person said that first contact with some hungry and suffering seniors is a response to a 911 call.

“A lot of talk about hunger is focused on people out of work who are trying to feed their families,” says Martin. But this project brings the issue of senior hunger to the forefront — a problem that may not change much even if the economy makes a healthy rebound, he believes.

Martin states, “It’s not as if a stronger economy means isolated seniors on fixed incomes are going to have more money to spend on utilities, prescription medicines and groceries. And it has always been true that when seniors are forced to choose among those three expenses, groceries likely will be last on the list.”

A Preview….

Aptly put, the problem seems simple but not the solutions, so says McPhillips in her first Web report.

Luz Navarro, a diabetic with part of her left foot amputated, has been on dialysis for four years. The 62-year-old former insurance agent is now housebound, living with her cat. The independently-minded Navarro, can barely stand to cook at the stove and must now rely on Meals on Wheels, delivering her lunch five times a week.

McPhillips illustrates how difficult it is for older person’s to get enough to eat. Navarro, like many of the State’s elderly who are homebound, can’t drive to get to the market, or to a food pantry when money is tight. Nor can she walk to a Senior Center to have lunch and socialize with others.

As McPhillips quipps, “while pundits debate,” Mrs. Navarro needs to eat. While some in Congress denounce the social safety net for creating a culture of dependency, others call for funding to provide food for the needy even with a huge federal deficit.

Senior Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) makes an appearance, calling for the continuation of funding to the state’s SNAP program to feed the growing number of hungry.

Also, Catherine Taylor, director of the state Division of Elderly Affairs, says she sees a future looking darker rather than brighter, for Navarro, and other homebound seniors.

In an era of shrinking budgets, it’s becoming harder to do the things necessary to help older people stay in their homes for as long as possible, admits Taylor.

She warns that federal funding for food programs may be slashed as Congress is forced to rein in the nation’s huge deficit. Food and gas price increases will hit older person’s where it hurts, in their pocket books, predicts Taylor, making it more difficult for them to purchase groceries.

Hopefully, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, will get Taylor’s message at the conclusion of McPhillips’ fine investigative piece: “It’s up to us to picture the world we want to age in,” and to work to bring it about.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.