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A year of lessons: COVID-19’s impact on older Americans

One year ago, the Wolf administration did something both unthinkable and absolutely necessary: It closed nursing homes to all visitors to combat the COVID-19 virus.

Long-term caregivers understood that isolating the residents from their families was vital in protecting them from a deadly illness, but it was an agonizing decision because of the human costs involved. Nursing home residents and staff have felt the brunt of this pandemic, not just in terms of illness and lives lost, but in the continued isolation so many residents continue to endure. COVID-19 is a killer, but so are loneliness and isolation.

Sadly, all too often, our policy leaders and society have not prioritized older Americans and the people who care for them. We hear demands for more regulation and harsh fines, but these same officials ignore how long-term care in Pennsylvania has been underfunded by the commonwealth for well over a decade. The current administration has flat-funded Medicaid during its time in office, and used millions in federal dollars during the pandemic to plug holes in the state budget, which had been earmarked by Congress for nursing homes.

But in recent weeks, we’ve also seen the progress we can make together when we do prioritize our long-term care system. The drive to put nursing home residents and staff at the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations has been a game-changer. The number of nursing home deaths has rapidly declined, and hopefully, federal and state governments will soon allow visitation to resume.

We’ve learned so much over the past year, and one of the important lessons is that when we prioritize the lives of older Americans, we can make real progress. When we fail to do so – when we fail to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, when we fail to halt community spread of a virus that exacts a cruel toll on older patients, when we fail to invest in long-term care – then older Americans and their families pay a devastating price.

Right now, those investments must focus on vaccinations and resources for long-term care. Federal and state officials must not let up in the fight against community spread of the virus – and that starts with vaccinations. We’re pleased Gov. Wolf and the Pennsylvania General Assembly have passed legislation that will enable our commonwealth’s National Guard to assist with vaccinations. They have been an asset in assisting with testing at nursing homes, and can help ensure efficient vaccination in older adult settings that have not yet received adequate focus, especially some personal care homes, assisted living facilities, continuing care retirement communities, and senior affordable housing.

As the mass vaccination efforts continue, we also need to include a plan for vaccination of the new staff and residents joining long-term care communities, as well as the extraordinary ongoing cost of PPE and testing these communities absorb every month. If we truly learned our lesson in prioritizing our long-term care system and older adults in Pennsylvania, we wouldn’t fail to adequately fund its mission and their care.

This crisis has exacerbated long-standing problems, including an unsustainable system for financing long-term care. Federal and state failures to invest in the Medicaid resources necessary to allow facilities to hire more staff and retain them must end.

We may have a vaccine for COVID-19, but it isn’t going away. Vaccinations will likely be an annual effort to protect our most vulnerable. Still, it appears Pennsylvania hasn’t learned the lessons from the past year. Gov. Wolf introduced a pandemic budget for 2021-22 that again flat-funds Medicaid at a time when nursing homes and other long-term care facilities desperately need help.

It’s time we took the lessons of the past year to heart. As we’ve seen, lives literally do depend on it.

Adam Marles is the president and CEO of LeadingAge PA.

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