“Don’t let coronavirus dominate your life.” That’s what President Trump tweeted upon returning to the White House after three days of world-class care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. But for average Americans, the coronavirus dominated every part of our life in 2020.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed how we work, learn, worship, and spend time with family and friends. And while public health practices and norms clearly don’t apply to the President, they forced the rest of us to make serious sacrifices. Like millions of other Americans, I haven’t visited my elderly family since March. We’ve abandoned much-needed hugs and settled for spotty video calls to minimize the risks.
Despite our personal sacrifices, America isn’t safer. The President’s negligent pandemic response, disregard for medical advice and science, and divisive public messaging jeopardized the lives of our loved ones, especially seniors. Our seniors and their essential caregivers at care facilities continue to be among the most vulnerable from deadly outbreaks – with no end in sight.
The facts are alarming. At least 77,000 residents and care professionals from 19,000 nursing homes have died from the coronavirus nationwide. Nearly half a million U.S. nursing home residents have been infected.
This is concerning where one in five Floridians are seniors. While Florida was one of the earliest states to lock down elder-care facilities, 41 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths have unfortunately come from senior communities, with little improvement in the months since the coronavirus hit. In Brevard County where my family lives, for example, 20 of the 37 long-term care facilities still have active infections and cases.
While the President is back to making empty promises, our elder community is on life support. To protect our most vulnerable seniors and caregivers, we need new leadership and real action. As a former state government official who responded to emergencies in elder-care facilities, I see opportunities for change with three key solutions:
First, dramatically expand rapid testing and improve quarantine procedures at senior facilities. To reduce outbreaks, more rapid testing is needed to better quarantine positive senior residents. Eight months into the pandemic, it is unconscionable that these facilities aren’t receiving the resources and support they need.
While the federal government has provided some assistance, the rapid-test machines – sufficient for weekly testing –are still woefully insufficient for daily testing needed to significantly improve containment. Florida’s testing is still well-short of the 70 percent threshold necessary to halt the coronavirus.
Second, protect, pay, and invest in essential caretakers. These frontline workers take tremendous risk to care for the most vulnerable. Almost 1,000 of these U.S. caregivers have died. To best protect caregivers, we must establish stronger worker protections and ensure that all elder-care facilities have stockpiles of personal protective equipment available.
Despite life-threatening circumstances, Florida caregivers serve our elderly for just $11 dollars an hour. A raise for these heroes will not only help morale but also improve care during these difficult times. While recent federal negotiations remain stalled, any future solution must include funding for healthcare worker premium pay and a national strategy for high-quality training and skills development for caregivers.
Third, modernize technology in senior care facilities. With visitors unable to physically spend time with their loved ones, video calls and digital tools will play an important role in providing care and maintaining connectivity. Expanding IT communication will accelerate telehealth, reduce hospital visits, and keep families connected.
Telemedicine in nursing homes can reduce 387,000 annual emergency room trips and eliminate almost seven million trips to physician’s offices, saving over $800 million in total savings. Reducing these interactions can help prevent opportunities for infection. Senior homes should be provided grants and tax credits to update and expand their digital infrastructure to improve safety and healthcare access.
As you carefully consider your vote for President, we must reflect on the dangers the most vulnerable in our society continue to face. We must immediately prioritize national solutions that protect our loved ones and caregivers. We need a President who understands the importance of healthcare access for all American seniors, not just those who can get helicoptered to Walter Reed. Until then, no matter what the President says, this pandemic will continue to dominate our lives.
Jeff Le was Deputy Cabinet Secretary to former California Governor Jerry Brown from 2015 to 2019 and oversaw homeland security, disaster preparedness, military, veterans, and technology issues. His family lives in Brevard County.