By U.S. Representative Kay Granger

The Hill
July 31, 2020 11:00AM CST

COVID-19 has been the worst health care tragedy in decades. Millions have been stricken ill and more than 120,000 Americans have been killed by it. And perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that the disease disproportionately targets the elderly.

That’s why I’m calling for the federal government to do more for our elderly and to do it more quickly. We need to focus on getting resources to help these vulnerable Americans. And we need to do it now before it’s too late.

As the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, I have worked closely with Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) in a bipartisan way to ensure that stimulus money was provided for just these types of situations. Yet it is now obvious that in administering some of these programs, the Department of Health and Human Services has not acted quickly enough. Of course, this pandemic is unlike anything any of us have faced before. And HHS has worked hard to make the best of a bad situation. But we still have to make sure we are getting it right when it comes to helping out our seniors.

One of the biggest challenges right now is helping senior living facilities who are taking care of vulnerable seniors. The administration did a good job of prioritizing nursing homes early on in the pandemic so that they could get the personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies they needed. But many of our elderly don’t live in nursing homes; they live in senior living facilities, like Sagora Senior Living in my congressional district. These are wonderful facilities where seniors that don’t require full-time nursing care can live at a much more affordable rate.

But these senior living facilities have still not been prioritized by HHS for financial relief. They have not been prioritized for PPE, or for testing supplies, and I fear once a vaccine is approved, they will continue to be overlooked. Instead, these senior living facilities have had to source their own supplies and testing capabilities and have incurred significant expenses in that process from not being able to move in new residents. They should have the same access to rapid results testing kits and supplies of PPE and funding as nursing homes. This would allow these senior living facilities to first test both residents and staff to find out who is COVID-19 positive and then to use PPE supplies to combat the disease and contain its spread.

Testing is a particular frustration of mine. It’s a symbol of how disorganized parts of the response have been. Many people can be tested and have the results in a couple of hours. If we can do that for some, why can’t we do that for all? Many of our senior citizens are waiting weeks to get their test results. These are people at an advanced age; they may not have weeks to wait. HHS needs to streamline this and not only get testing done at all senior living facilities, but HHS needs to ensure these tests are done correctly and the results come back quickly.

I know something about the challenges the patients and staff at these facilities are experiencing. I have a lifelong friend currently staying at a senior living facility in my congressional district. Like millions of others in these facilities, she is not allowed in or out of the building. Plus, her family and friends can’t come to see her. Her only human interaction is with the wonderful staff who deliver food, check her for symptoms and facilitate Zoom calls with family. It’s no wonder that we are hearing of high rates of depression inside these facilities. It is a fine balance to keep people safe and keep their spirits up. Depression is a tragic consequence of this crisis.

We can’t do much about the isolation these seniors are experiencing until COVID-19 is under control. But we can and should do something to ensure these facilities have all the tools they need to fight the disease, and it’s a basic measure of fairness that senior living facilities be treated the same way nursing homes are by HHS.