In a new series of letters sent yesterday to Congressional leaders, Vice President Pence, and White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, MD, experts at the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) continued to reinforce the need for medical supplies, telehealth, expertise in older adult care, and a range of other priorities as the federal government plans the next phase of America's response to COVID-19. As diverse as these important focal points are, they highlight a key theme that crosscuts the pandemic: Building momentum for older adult care builds momentum for us all.
This virus affects everyone, regardless of age or any other characteristics. By advancing supports that serve the most vulnerable, including older people, we can build better treatment and prevention for all Americans."
Nancy Lundebjerg, MPA, AGS CEO
The guidance comes at a critical time for the pandemic response in the U.S. At present, 31 percent of all cases, 45 percent of hospitalizations, 53 percent of ICU admissions, and 80 percent of deaths have occurred among adults over age 65, with the highest percentage of severe outcomes among persons aged 85 years or older. In its letters, the AGS outlined several time-sensitive on mission-critical priorities for older adults, caregivers, and the health professionals who keep them healthy and safe. These include:
- Ensuring Access to Needed Medical Supplies: Health professionals are our first line of defense against COVID-19, and their first line of defense rests on testing kits, masks, gowns, gloves, respirators, and other supplies that make care safe and person-centered. The AGS urged the federal government to make full use of the recently invoked Defense Protection Act and move quickly to ramp up production and distribution.
- Further Expanding Telehealth Services: Like many U.S. health professionals, geriatrics experts now must balance the importance of continued care with options that prevent the spread of disease. Telehealth (health services provided virtually using technology) remains as an invaluable tool on this front. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) already has done much to increase telehealth availability. In its letters, the AGS commended these actions and suggested other steps, including changes to ensure expanded telehealth services are embraced more permanently.
- Advancing Paid Leave and Support for Caregivers: Under current policy, most American workers remain without access to paid family leave--a key social support as more people help manage family health concerns. The AGS reiterated its long-standing belief that federal protections must empower employees to recover from serious illnesses and care for newborns, newly adopted children, or seriously ill family members. In particular, the AGS urged Congress to expand paid family, medical, and sick leave to all health professionals and direct care workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. The AGS also advised Congress to implement tax relief for clinician practices, hospitals, post-acute care facilities, skilled nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, as well as home care agencies that provide the workforce for older adults and people with disabilities. This relief would offset the expense of paid family leave for employers, allowing them to support our frontline healthcare professionals.
- Financial Support for Clinicians: During these challenging times, AGS experts believe it's critical that our healthcare professionals and facilities remain equipped to operate during and after the public health emergency. Many frontline healthcare professionals caring for patients with COVID-19 may experience additional financial strain as they work to protect their loved ones. The AGS is also concerned that smaller medical practices may be at greater risk for economic distress with less access to capital and lean margins, while larger practices with 500 or more employees may not qualify for the financial relief loans recently made available by the federal government.
- Supporting Charitable Organizations: Many older adults and other vulnerable people rely on nonprofits for food, transportation, and other important needs. The AGS advised doing all America can to help this safety net operate effectively, meet increased demands, and weather the financial implications of COVID-19. Among other priorities, the AGS suggested including charitable nonprofits in emergency loan and assistance programs comprising the more than $1 trillion stimulus package now under debate.
- Empowering Other Health Professionals: As COVID-19 continues to strain the American health system, the AGS urged CMS to utilize other experts, such as clinical pharmacists, to address workforce shortages across professions. Pharmacists can play an invaluable role with point-of-care testing, vaccination, and time-sensitive treatment.
- Supporting Direct Care Workers: Direct care workers (those who provide primary, hands-on care across our health systems) are essential to our care as we age, especially during public health crises. The emergence of this new and deadly coronavirus has significantly exacerbated existing gaps in expertise and systemic weaknesses in health care service delivery for older Americans, particularly when we consider our vital direct care workforce. As we continue to learn and grow from this emergency, the AGS urged Congress to provide educational and grant opportunities for direct care workers across different professions and areas of expertise.
- Expanding Geriatrics Experts: "Now more than ever, we need to provide guidance and instruction so that all health professionals--not just geriatrics experts--understand the health conditions older adults face, and how those conditions may impact COVID-19," AGS experts advised. Among opportunities for advancing age-friendly care, the AGS noted the importance of new opportunities, such as loan forgiveness programs, as well as existing platforms like the Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP) and the Geriatrics Academic Career Awards (GACAs). "The GWEP provides support for the current transformation of primary care, while the GACAs develop the next generation of innovators to improve care outcomes and delivery. Together, they educate the workforce we all need in times of crisis and calm," added Lundebjerg.
In addition to its letters, the AGS created information hubs for health professionals (AmericanGeriatrics.org/COVID19) and older adults (HealthInAging.org/COVID19) looking for guidance and expert insights on COVID-19.