As Congress returns to Washington, D.C., this week, nonprofit aging services leaders are reminding legislators that federal financial support for older adults remains elusive but critical.

LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan was joined at a Wednesday press conference by aging services leaders from Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas to share concerns related to testing, personal protective equipment and workforce shortages.

Sloan said the administration’s “abysmal” response to the COVID-19 public health crisis has failed older adults and the providers that care for them. Senior living and other providers continue to struggle with securing testing, personal protection equipment, staffing and other lifesaving necessities, paying enormous out-of-pocket costs to fill the gaps, she said. This path is unsustainable without a new federal lifeline, Sloan added.

“Providers are sidetracked and confused by the maze of shifting regulations, inconsistent guidance and disjointed programs,” Sloan said. “As we head into flu season, the pandemic is poised to grow more deadly. Without a comprehensive and reliable national plan, older adults cannot escape the pandemic’s ravaging and growing danger.”

Sloan conceded that the administration has taken “a few welcome steps” to deliver relief to providers, but said it’s a small fraction of what is needed and that the resources provided “virtually ignore” older adults in assisted living and seniors housing. Care providers, she said, are skeptical of the “token gestures” as new initiatives roll out from the federal government, including recent announcements regarding the delivery of rapid-results antigen tests to both assisted living communities and nursing homes.

“No COVID-19 relief bill should pass without historical levels of support and resources specifically targeted to aging services providers caring for older Americans,” Sloan said.

LeadingAge Oklahoma President and CEO Mary Brinkley said providers are spending more in one month on PPE than they spent in an entire year pre-COVID-19. And ongoing costs for testing staff and residents are leaving many providers concerned about their financial viability, she said.

“Any provider can find themselves facing a crisis situation at any time,” Brinkley said. 

Julie Thorson, president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA, said that based on positivity rates, her community must test all employees twice a week. One test kit costs $33, but as those supplies become difficult to find, long-term care facilities are forced to work with outside labs that charge $100 per test to meet testing requirements, Thorson said. Those costs are in addition to the weekly testing costs for residents, she said.

COVID-19 has changed the way long-term care operates, Thorson said. Workforce challenges that were a critical issue pre-COVID-19 have escalated to a crisis level. Provider relief funds resulted in short-term pay bumps to frontline staff, but operators also are redirecting direct care workers to screening and visitation monitoring positions as they comply with local, state and federal requirements.

Patrick Crump, president and CEO of Morningside Ministries, a faith-based not-for-profit senior living provider based in San Antonio, TX, said he has struggled with conflicting state and federal directives and testing confusion, which places an “extra burden on staff already stressed out and trying to cope with day-to-day challenges.”

“We are trying to figure out how to continue the services we’ve been providing since the early 1960s, but we cannot do it and sustain the ministry of our organization without additional funding support,” Crump said.

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In other coronavirus-related news:

  • The Empire State Association of Assisted Living is encouraging assisted living community family members and friends to contact the New York State Department of Health to relax restrictions on visitation in communities. The move comes after the organization said there has been “no progress” on reopening hair salons and making family visitation more workable in assisted living communities.
  • The White House Coronavirus Task Force recently released a weekly report to governors about the current state of the coronavirus pandemic, encouraging Missouri to ensure that all assisted living communities located in college towns have full testing capacity with access to rapid tests so staff can be aggressively tested weekly to prevent spread of the virus from students to residents through staff. The report also encouraged  the use of social distancing and face masks, and isolating all COVID-positive residents and staff members.
  • The San Francisco Public Health Department issued a new order effective Sept. 5 allowing residential care facilities for the elderly, adult residential facilities and residential facilities for the chronically ill flexibility to allow outdoor, vehicle-based and window visits. Visitation requirements include visitor screenings, physical distancing, face masks, appointments, restrictions on length of visits and number of visitors, and the prohibition of direct exchange of visits. The agency also updated FAQs on in-person visits, communal dining and resident activities for residential care facilities. 
  • A Morganton, NC, continuing care retirement community is getting creative keeping people safe while they exercise. Grace Ridge Retirement Community sends seniors to their balconies for workouts. Balcony and hallways exercises are used to offer strength and flexibility training for seniors during the pandemic.