Op-Ed: The Measures that Must be Taken to Protect Older New Jerseyans and Caregivers

Access to enough personal protective equipment is one of the keys to ensuring the health of residents in long-term care facilities and of their caregivers
Jim McCracken

Mission-driven long-term care and aging services providers, who have devoted themselves — at risk to their health and lives — have been working around-the-clock during the pandemic to care for older adults in New Jersey, wherever they may call home.

Our state’s long-term care facilities and other aging services organizations were hit hard by COVID-19. Steps have been taken to protect nursing home residents and other vulnerable older adults, as well as their care workers, but more must be done.

The New Jersey state Legislature and Murphy administration, as well as our federal leaders, must work collaboratively with long-term care providers. The time is now to implement a coordinated plan and commit the needed resources to save lives.

From the outset of this public health emergency, it has been clear that older adults and their caregivers were at the greatest risk. Deaths attributed to long-term care residents and staff account for nearly 45% of lab-confirmed and probable deaths in our state. One-third of the Americans who have died in this pandemic were in nursing homes and COVID-19 still threatens millions of older adults and care workers. Nursing homes and other care providers have faced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other resources.

Concern over personal protective equipment

Here in New Jersey, many providers say that shortages of PPE still exist. And some say they are burning through a year’s worth of their PPE budget in just a month. With COVID-19, someone may be fine one day and sick the next. Testing is important, but also very expensive, costing tens of thousands of unbudgeted dollars.

For months, our beleaguered care providers have been sounding the alarm.

Local, county, state, and federal governments were unprepared to deal with this nasty virus, along with emergency response agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There is an insufficient state and national stockpile of PPE and nursing homes were not prioritized for its distribution.

Now, the mental health of our seniors residing in long-term care communities is becoming more and more of a concern. Gov. Murphy recently allowed long-term care residents to receive visitors outside. But, many residents remain isolated, lonely and longing for socialization. New Jersey must move to reopen our economy with detailed plans to protect older adults in nursing homes, assisted living and other care settings and allow them to safely congregate and have loved ones visit.

Five-point action plan

We know what needs to be done, and we need action now. That’s why I’m advocating for five essential actions to protect millions of vulnerable older Americans:

  1. States should prioritize the health and safety of older Americans as they reopen. Our most vulnerable can’t be forced to compete with nail salons and gyms for life-protecting supplies on the open market;
  2. All care providers who serve older Americans need immediate access to ample and appropriate PPE;
  3. Older adults and their care providers must have on-demand and fully funded access to accurate and rapid-results testing;
  4. We must recognize and support the heroic frontline workers who are risking and sometimes losing their lives serving older Americans, just as we’ve recognized hospital workers and others who have kept America running;
  5. Saving the lives of older adults means that these promises must be kept with real funding and support. In its next relief package, Congress must provide critical support for aging services, including allocating $100 billion specifically for aging services providers; $1.2 billion for affordable senior housing; support to deliver telehealth; access to forgivable loans; Medicaid increases and administrative relief.