The next COVID-19 relief legislation passed by Congress should address racial disparities among older adults, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), ranking member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said Tuesday at a committee hearing.

“We have a chance right now, in the next three weeks, to begin to address these injustices” for older Americans, he said, adding that legislation in the near term needs to address a national testing strategy, personal protective equipment funding, expansion of community long term services and supports, premium pay for “heroes on the front lines” caring for older adults, a guarantee of access to quality affordable health care, and a specific plan to keep long-term care residents and workers safe.

“We must do all of these and more to protect older Americans of color from the worst public health crisis in a century,” Casey said. “The actions we take in the short run are not a substitute for enacting policies to address the injustices that have plagued communities of color for generations — not decades; generations. Taking action on these racial health disparities that we are here to talk about today is what the cause of justice demands of us in the U.S. Senate.”

Casey said the country also needs to acknowledge lack of affordable housing, food insecurity, the education gap, unemployment and police misconduct against Black Americans and “take action to do something about it.”

Tuesday’s hearing was focused on understanding the racial and ethnic health disparities that older adults are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as meaningful solutions.

“The COVID-19 Pandemic and Seniors: A Look at Racial Health Disparities” hearing drew on health experts to detail the overall rates of COVID-19 infections in racial and ethnic minority communities, access to testing and follow-up care, virtual hospital models, improved data collection and data analytics, opportunities and challenges around telehealth, barriers to participation in clinical trials and workforce development.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who chairs the committee, said there are still unknowns associated with the novel coronavirus, but what is known is that individuals with chronic illness are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 infection, and Black and ethnic minorities experience disproportionate rates of chronic illness as well as COVID-19 infections and deaths. 

Hearing witness Mercedes R. Carnethon, Ph.D., vice chair or preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that early scientific reports from countries that preceded the United States in the pandemic highlighted that nonwhites and ethnic minorities would be disproportionately affected due to high rates of vascular disease in those populations. Long-term care facilities with a greater proportion of Black or Latinx residents, she said, have double the rate of COVID-19 infections of their predominantly non-Hispanic white counterparts.

“A strong economy that allows for stable housing, access to healthy foods, and healthcare access to manage chronic conditions is likely to be of even greater benefit to elderly vulnerable populations,” Carnethon said. “However, we cannot return to normal by prioritizing the economy over the people without offering strategies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on minority older adults.”

Based on her experience as a population science researcher, Carnethon offered three recommendations, including expanding digital infrastructure and training for older adults to support video conferencing for telemedicine; providing additional financial support to various institutions at the National Institutes of Health to address manifestations of the SARS-COV2 infection in the underrepresented minority and older adult populations; and engaging communities hardest hit by COVID-19 to develop strategies for prevention and treatment.

In other coronavirus-related news:

  • Artis Senior Living launched a new Artis Safety Council in partnership with Johns Hopkins physicians and a cross-discipline group of Artis associates and healthcare leaders to focus on maximizing the safety and well-being of residents, associates and families. Core areas of focus initially include cleaning and sanitation protocols, use of PPE and test approaches. 
  • Twelve people now have died as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings, MT.  Aaron Koelsch, CEO of Koelsch Communities and operator of Canyon Creek, sent a letter to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to “correct misinformation” about the outbreak. 
  • The New York State Department of Health and State Office for the Aging announced a five-point plan to help long-term care residents in assisted living, nursing homes and other licensed adult care homes and their families access services through the Office of the State Long Term Care Ombudsman Program. The plan also provides additional resources to residents and families appealing involuntary discharges, expand the ombudsman volunteer program, reimagines a multi-agency workgroup to enhance service, and provides up to $1 million in  funding for long-term care facilities to buy tablets, webcams, headphones and other accessories to help residents stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
  • The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration said COVID-19 test kits sent to assisted living communities and nursing homes are for employees, not residents. Facilities received a month’s worth of tests and, under a pair of emergency rules, are required to test staff every other week. The state said facilities should coordinate with residents’ healthcare providers or contact the county health department if a resident requires testing, according to the state. 
  • Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz instituted a temporary ban on most evictions in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, but current law provides no way to appeal terminations of medical services at assisted living communities, which can force people from their homes, according to a media report. 
  • California adopted new guidelines outlining who should be prioritized for COVID-19 testing as cases surged and counties reported delayed lab results. The guidelines adopt tiers that prioritize testing of hospitalized patients with coronavirus symptoms, other symptomatic people, and then higher-risk asymptomatic individuals. People who live or work in residential care facilities for the elderly fall into Tier 2. 
  • A spokesman for a Five Star Premier Residences of Chevy Chase, an independent living and assisted living community in Maryland, says the community is working to procure its own nasal swab test kits for residents after it declined the county’s offer for free COVID-19 testing, according to one media outlet. In April, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order requiring all nursing home residents and staff members to undergo COVID-19 testing, but that order did not apply to senior living communities.
  • The top Republican lawmakers in the New York Senate and Assembly are signing onto a bill that would create an independent investigation of deaths at assisted living, nursing home and other long-term care facilities during the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging Robert Torres participated in an interview with Georgetown University about the social isolation faced by today’s seniors, exacerbated in recent months, and options and recommendations to reduce it.
  • A retired artist has launched a cartoon series to spread laughter to his neighbors amid the coronavirus pandemic. The cartoonist lives at Sun Health’s The Colonnade in Surprise, AZ. The series features characters making quips about communicating with loved ones, talking to each other through masks and carrying out normally routine errands. 
  • Rising cases of coronavirus in long-term care facilities are a cause for concern, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study
  • New Hampshire’s long-term care ombudsman is sounding the alarm about the harm prolonged isolation is inflicting on residents of the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. At a meeting of the State Commission on Aging, Susan Buxton said the restrictive visitor rules are hiring the very people they’re meant to protect, robbing them of both social interaction and access to outside advocates who can raise issues about the quality of their care.
  • Assisted living, residential, memory care and nursing facilities in Oregon are now permitted to provide limited outdoor visitation for residents if the facility has a plan to adhere to required safeguards to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 
  • A variety of tools and training can make it easy for older adults in assisted living to connect and thrive despite ongoing isolation measures. By providing residents with tablets and video calling capabilities, along with robust WiFi connections and hands-on training, conversations with loved ones and telehealth visits can easily take place.